By Hogan Short
In Personal Shopper, Kristin Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright as she carries a film that feels segmented from each storyline. Maureen has some serious baggage: a spiritual medium, she is haunted by the hope that her deceased twin brother Lewis will reach out to her from the afterlife. She’s also a disgruntled personal shopper for an unsavoury boss, a large player in the fashion world.
We learn this quite ham-fistedly as director/writer Olivier Assayas tries to transition this story from an insightful character drama to ghostly horror to mystery thriller and finally to introspective arthouse movie. The film is an uncomfortable juggling act dealing with different themes such as grief, the ability letting go, being comfortable in ones skin, and consumerism. Unfortunately, the film just comes off like it is disconnected from itself, desperately grasping at a way back to whatever point it was initially trying to make. It is a movie that tries to tell its audience so much in so many ways that it doesn’t tell us anything at all.
The film opens with Maureen as she inspects her childhood home for any leftover sign of her twin brother’s spirit. Though she finds nothing, the search is always at the forefront of the story and in the back of the audience’s mind. We feel Maureen’s longing to connect with her brother while she performs menial tasks for her busy fashionista boss, and discover her character through a signature of Assayas: conversation. Though the dialogue in this film is frequent and interesting, it matters little to the plot. Each interaction seems to follow this pattern and comes off as self serving and indulgent.
The film abruptly switches gears from a character study to a mystery thriller when Maureen starts receiving mysterious and personal text messages from an unknown number. This person seems to know her past, her fears and anxieties, going as far as to book hotels for her. We wonder, just like Maureen, if this could be her dead brother Lewis reaching out to her or just somebody toying with her. With Maureen so determined to discover their identity, this becomes an interesting arc, but results in a half-hour of different shots of Maureen looking at her phone. This becomes painfully boring, but is trumped when Assayas includes a ten minute long scene, in the movie, of another movie:. Both of these sections only increase the disconnect that the audience has with Maureen and her story.
But they do introduce to the film’s saving grave: a powerful performance from Kristen Stewart who is in every scene of this film, often acting alongside nothing but a text message. This performance isn’t surprising as I believe Stewart is one of the most interesting actors working in film today, period. With a few standout supporting roles in films like Panic Room, Into the Wild, and In the Land of Women, she was proving to be a formidable force in young Hollywood. Since Twilight, Stewart has been ridiculed, unfairly slut shamed, and generally disregarded as a real actor who only knows how to stutter through her lines and awkwardly blink at the ground. In Personal Shopper she proves again that she is an actor who is not afraid of a difficult role in an interesting, often independent film. Since the ending of Twilight, she has starred in at least four movies a year that has had her tackling seriously difficult roles. Some of these movies prove to be misfires (Anesthesia, 2016) but several have ended up being great films that she will be remembered for (Certain Women, 2016). I was hoping that the interesting premise of Personal Shopper would be another example of the latter, but it will just have to remain another impressive addition into Kristen Stewart’s blossoming filmography.
Personal Shopper enters its third act and each individual story arc introduced now starts to fizzle away and become confusingly entangled in one another. We go back and forth to her as a disinterested personal shopper to a curious and scared women searching for answers. Instead of tying up loose ends, each story continues to add unneeded pieces that confuse the bigger picture entirely. Certain scenes are so well crafted they bring us immediately back into the story, only to prove completely meaningless by the end of the film.
With moments of brilliance and some truly horrifying scenes, Personal Shopper is a film with an effectively grim tone and a great lead performance that disappointedly gets tied up in confused plot lines and forgotten themes. Maureen is trying to exorcize herself from the painful memory of her brother and we see that clearly—it is a smart and creative way to tackle what our grief means to us and how it can affect us, for worse or for better, but the story just always feels lost. We endure the journey anyway because if it finds its way back there is the possibility of an ending with an emotionally profound finale, but Assayas’ attempt at that impactful resolution we had hoped for feels more like a confident swing that ultimately misses the target.
Personal Shopper opens March 24th at the Vancity Theatre.Personal Shopper, Vancity Theatre