Ever wondered what it would look like if a French art house specialist decided to make a haunted house picture with the star of ‘Twilight’? Well, now you’ll kind of know. Following their acclaimed ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, writer/director Olivier Assayas reteams with his unexpected muse Kristen Stewart for a bizarre ghost story as rooted in painful memory and regret as in supernatural scares.
‘Personal Shopper’ is an intriguing experiment. Assayas delivers some genuinely impressive set-pieces, as well as plenty of expected pretentions. The film will likely end up being too arty for the genre crowd and too lurid for the artsy-fartsy types, but those who fall somewhere in the middle should appreciate the oddball combination of ideas and influences.
K-Stew stars as Maureen, the personal shopper of the title. She spends her days buying absurdly expensive clothing and accessories around France for her celebrity boss (Nora von Waldstätten), the specifics of whose fame are unclear. She’s also a little obsessed with ghosts, telling people that she’s a medium and determined to find the spirit of her recently deceased brother.
The movie flip-flops from Maureen living out her odd and dehumanizing job for the rich and her attempts to contact her brother. In the process of the latter, she also encounters a few other unspecified spirits. Eventually, she starts receiving mysterious text messages. This turns into a long, almost exclusively text sequence that might be a haunting or might be a psychopath. Either way, it will almost certainly end in blood. Like everything else in the film, it’s hard to tell just how seriously the filmmaker takes the material, or if he wants the audience to take it seriously either.
Presumably, Assayas is trying to draw some sort of parallel between his protagonist’s oddly slave-like classist profession and a haunting. (Maybe she’s as dead as her brother? Eww… I hope not.) As usual, the filmmaker has a fragmented storytelling style that leaves things opaquely vague and open for interpretation. However, this time, the intellectual undercurrents feel a bit forced. Fortunately, as an exercise in style and scares, it works well enough. Assayas has a knack for creep-out suspense and delivers more than a few unsettling moments. Stewart proves to be a strong anchor. Her performance isn’t quite as good as she was in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, but she’s always lip-bitingly believable and sells some of the movie’s most ridiculous scenes.
As far as arty haunting movies go, ‘Personal Shopper’ is effective, and many of the dangling mysteries only add to the atmosphere even if that wasn’t intended. Unfortunately, whatever deeper intentions Assayas may or may not have had in the back of his mind don’t translate nearly as well. The movie fails a bit as an art film and will likely irritate fans of the director seeking out such things. Whether or not the idea of a ‘Conjuring’-style flick with French film pretentions is for you is a reasonable question. If nothing else, it will be the most unique ghost flick of the year, for better or worse.