Originally Published July 27, 2016 as I Boo Dead People - "Personal Shopper" (2016)
“Personal Shopper” is a film with the power to beguile and send you into a rage. Whenever a Cannes Film Festival audience boos a film, it's most definitely worth your time. Is the audience up its own pretentious arse or is the film actually horrendous? In almost every instance, a film that elicits that kind of reaction cannot be missed. For the first time that I've ever seen a film that was booed at Cannes I agreed with our beret wearing betters. "Personal Shopper" made this reviewer hate it immediately. After an hour, discussion with friends and two spiced mojitos I was ready to hear reason. Now almost a year later, revisiting this review as the Australian theatrical release approaches I find that writer/director Olivier Assayas' follow-up to "Clouds of Sils Maria," with star and muse K-Stew is increasingly a diamond rather than a pig wrapped in silk.
Maureen (Stewart) is a personal shopper for a globetrotting model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) who also happens to be able to communicate with ghosts. When her twin brother passes away from a genetic deformity that they share, she attempts to exercise her shared awareness of the spiritual realm to try to make contact. When her spiritual outreach grazes darker spirits it sends her into a reality altering delirium.
Stewart's Maureen already stands apart. Her life is one of service and negotiation with her employer, bouncing around Paris armed with a supermodel's terms of 'adornment.' Assayas does a great job of shrouding the audience in Maureen's isolation and melancholy. Underneath the noise, Maureen is vulnerable. Once she dips her toe into the other realm, she fractures like a dropped iPhone. The shape holds together, while the fragments are sharp and precarious. Assayas attempts to ground the spiritual realm with the darkness in Maureen's life. When she's contacted by a stranger by text, she becomes enraptured by the virtual companion and in her mind, but never really yours as the audience, she's vulnerable to emotional exploit.
The composition and construction of scenes surrounding Maureen enacting her fantasy and her interactions with the stranger are exquisitely ambivalent. Stewart must carry the entire film, bridging the gap between seemingly distant tones and characters. She plays Maureen with a bitter irritability in the work setting, despite her talent. Stewart feels despondent and lost because of her brother's passing. His absence has created a void in her life. Assayas and Stewart explore the burden of the shadows with authentic insecurity.
There are tiresome moments of the film if you’re at all resistant to Assayas submerging you into Maureen’s perspective. In the middle of the film a text message conversation unfolds in what feels like 72 hours and if you find yourself criticising each text for grammatical 'abbrev' choices; you know that your suspension of disbelief has waned. Assayas ensnares your gaze while Maureen is manipulated by this anonymous stranger. You step out of Maureen’s mind and into the mind of her tormentor, fulfilling his disturbed voyeuristic fantasy. It’s not clear whether he intends you to feel deviant - or on reflection; empowered for Maureen’s fantasy fulfilment.
In my original review of “Personal Shopper” I concluded with the following:
“With Personal Shopper you don't ask "what came first, the chicken or the egg?" Instead it's "what came first the fury or the adoration?" The conundrum remains frustratingly unanswered.”
“Personal Shopper” is a movie that lingered in my thoughts long after viewing. There’s something so prescient about looking for answers in those we’ve loved and lost when we feel rudderless. In states of vulnerability our desires are the most ripe for exploit, especially in a world of connectivity without physical connection.
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.