PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016) is a slow-burn of a horror movie that is definitely more “slow” than “burn.”
It’s the second collaboration between French director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart.
I saw PERSONAL SHOPPER when it first came out a couple of years ago, and, in spite of its molasses pace and highbrow hints and innuendoes, I liked it. I found its story about a young woman played by Stewart working as a personal shopper in Paris who’s staying there trying to find a sign from her recently deceased twin brother, just captivating and haunting enough to make it worthwhile.
I recently re-watched this flick to see if it still held up, or if maybe I had simply been in a really good mood when I first saw it.
I may have been in a really good mood.
In PERSONAL SHOPPER, Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper to a celebrity, who, due to her fame, cannot shop unencumbered. But the real reason Maureen is there, and the reason she is so somber and haunted, is her twin brother died there a month earlier. And Maureen isn’t just mourning. She’s looking for a sign.
Her brother was a medium, as is Maureen, and he had promised her that if he died he would send her a sign from the other side. And so she spends dark nights inside the house where her brother had lived, waiting for his message. In fact, at one point in the movie, when asked what she is doing in Paris, she actually says she is waiting. Her search isn’t restricted to her brother’s house, but pretty much everywhere she goes in Paris, she is on the lookout for some sign from her brother, and when she is contacted, whether through strange noises in the dark or haunting apparitions or mysterious text messages, it sets off a myriad of questions. Is it her brother? Is it someone else? If it is someone else, is it a spirit or a real person? Or are there multiple spirits/persons trying to contact her? Do they pose a threat? Did I really star in all those TWILIGHT movies?
These are all fascinating questions, and I enjoyed following Maureen on her search for answers. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really provide satisfying responses to these questions, as it remains vague about most of them. Perhaps this is the point, that when seeking out those things that haunt us, there aren’t always clear definitive answers.
PERSONAL SHOPPER is one very moody and somber film, and as such, is driven by Kristen Stewart‘s subtle yet dominating performance. She’s in nearly every scene of the movie, and the film doesn’t suffer for it. She is captivating to watch, and, in spite of the purposely vague narrative, she held my interest throughout.
It’s interesting thematically that as Maureen is dealing with spirits while searching for a sign from her brother, her job, in contrast, keeps her in contact with a celebrity who also seems more dead than alive, who treats people horribly, and is oblivious to everyone around her, as if she, like a spirit, is living in some other world. Likewise, even though Maureen has a boyfriend back home who she communicates with via Skype, she struggles with human relationships. She seems to enjoy being alone. It’s almost as if she, too, is living in another world, and there are certainly parallels between her story and her brother’s.
For example, they’re twins. They’re both mediums. They both share the same cardiovascular defect which caused her brother to suffer a heart attack and die while only in his twenties. Her brother is literally dead, and she seems to be figuratively dead. The film shows two different worlds intertwined, so that it’s difficult to know which one is which and who is in which one. It’s fascinating to think about, and the film throws out hints and suggestions that come close to turning the entire plot on its head.
The film doesn’t skimp on the suspense either. There’s an opening scene in a dark house which is as creepy as they get. There are scenes of spectral appearances, and one of the most suspenseful sequences involves Maureen receiving a series of strange text messages. At first, she hopes the messages are from her brother, but then she has doubts and fears that perhaps someone—a spirit or a very real person—might be stalking her.
The best part of PERSONAL SHOPPER is that it’s about as far from a by-the-numbers thriller as you can get. It’s a much more complex movie than most, and, for that alone, it’s worth watching.
It’s a haunting film, empowered by Stewart’s mesmerizing performance, and by Olivier Assayas‘ artistic direction. The camera gets in real close during the suspense scenes, and it takes its time with the spectral sequences, allowing for full impact when apparitions appear.
Other scenes end in mid-dialogue, often giving the distinct notion that what we are seeing, especially in terms of Maureen, is only part of what is going on. Indeed, this is a movie where the missing parts seem to be more prominent and powerful than the parts we are shown.
Assayas’ cryptic screenplay is like a puzzle, and as such, for a moviegoer like myself who enjoys a good story, I found this very frustrating at times, more so during the second viewing. Not enough for me not to like this movie, but it was certainly more of a distraction the second time around. The ending, in particular, leaves its audience with one big question mark.
And that’s because PERSONAL SHOPPER is a movie more interested in questions than answers. Maureen spends the whole movie asking questions, looking for answers, and, by the end of the movie, she seems to have found them, but just what they are and what they mean for her and for the audience, remains unknown.