Personal Shopper got a strange reaction on its Cannes debut. It was booed at the critics screening, but then got a standing ovation at the official showing. It eventually won Best Director for Olivier Assayas. Even when it was released in cinemas, the reviews were incredibly polarised. Some said it was a ‘masterwork’, while others thought it was total mess. As so often with these things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is working as a personal shopper/assistant for a rich, snooty celebrity in Paris. However, she also has some psychic ability, and is trying to connect to her twin brother Lewis, who died in France from a congenital condition that could also kill Maureen.
She is feeling rather disconnected and lost, unsure of who she is or who she wants to be. She’s also surrounded by those whose life seems to offer at least superficial comfort and glamour. Then she starts receiving strange anonymous texts from someone. While she starts to reply, the person refuses to reveal who they are, and Maureen starts to wonder whether the texter might be dangerous, or even whether they’re trying to connect from the afterlife.
It is a drama/thriller, interested in abstract feelings such as grief, a sense of disconnection from life and the ennui caused by celebrity culture and constantly seeing luxury from afar. Beyond that it wants to explore whether people looking for answers – in things such as capitalist consumption or the paranormal – are actually looking for things that are really inside themselves.
To do this, Olivier Assayas takes the movie through a series of tonal shifts and genre ideas. There are Hitchcockian moments, which then morphs into slasher horror territory, before trying some paranormal creepiness and even dipping its toe into procedural thriller. It’s this that has caused the polarised response. Those pulled into the unnerved atmosphere have found these shifts add to the unsettled look into the interior of a character who isn’t even sure if they’re living in fear or not. To others though, it’s just come across as a mess, with a plot that’s all over the place and which undermines itself with contradictions over what’s happening.
It is a bit of both, as it has some interesting ideas and some genuinely creepy moments, but it’s constantly trying to be far cleverer than it actually is. Likewise, Kristen Stewart’s performance has been a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. As with some of her other movies, some have held her up as the best actress of her generation, while others find her so mumbly and flat that they’re not even convinced it should be called a performance. Here she’s actually much better than in some of her other movies, displaying more versatility and range, but some will still undoubtedly feel it’s difficult to care about her or her character.
As a result, it’s difficult to know whether to recommend Personal Shopper or not. I’m glad I watched it, but I’ll probably never feel the need to see it again. Some will undoubtedly adore it, and some will think it’s a pointless mess. It might be worth finding out what you think though.
Overall Verdict: It is messy and not as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s also stylish and filled with interesting ideas. Personal Shopper will certainly result in some very different reactions from viewers.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac