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Non-Review Review: Personal Shopper

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Personal Shopper is a fascinating study of personal disconnect and existential ennui filtered through the lens of a twenty-first century ghost story, but the film’s willingness to linger on extraneous detail is both its greatest strength and its most significant weakness. Personal Shopper is a movie that adds up a great deal less than the sum of its parts. While that feels undoubtedly like the intent of director Olivier Assayas, who takes great pleasure in the dangling threads and open endings, it still makes for a deeply unsatisfying picture.

Racking up an impressive indie resume.

Racking up an impressive indie resume.

Personal Shopper is certainly never boring. The film is a fascinating genre hybrid, attempting at once to construct a contemporary ghost story around a mystery thriller and an intimate psychological drama. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Personal Shopper is the way that these elements bounce off one another, as the audience tries to fit each individual element into their understanding of the film. There are so many different elements at play that certain plot beats might fit comfortably within any of them.

This is particularly evident when Maureen Cartwright starts receiving mysterious text messages from an unknown number. Maureen is a personal assistant to a high-profile celebrity who at once envies and resents her employer. Tasked with picking up clothing and jewellery for the pop star, Maureen exists is an awkward stand-in. At the same time, Maureen also claims to be a medium who is able to connect with the spiritual world. She is also coping with the loss of her dead twin brother, desperately waiting for a sign from the other side.

Ear her out.

Ear her out.

In doing so, Personal Shopper sets up any number of intriguing possibilities. Are those mysterious flirtatious (and more than slightly aggressive text messages) a headgame that relates to Maureen’s privileged access to her popular employer? Or are they connected to something more? Although the nature (and source) of the text messages is eventually revealed, there is a palpable ambiguity there that speaks to the strengths of Personal Shopper. Is this a supernatural horror? Is it a psychological thriller? Much like Maureen itself, the movie has an existential crisis.

At its core, Personal Shopper is a ghost story about living people. Maureen claims to want proof of a world beyond, but the film repeatedly suggests that she is actually looking for a more tangible connection in this world. The characters in Personal Shopper seem to glide through one another’s lives like ethereal spectres that will never make contact. Maureen might be a spiritual medium, but most of her real-life contacts are already heavily mediated. Many of them are not even really there.

Going through the cycles of grief.

Going through the cycles of grief.

After all, Maureen’s only contact with her boyfriend takes place over Skype, their interactions filtered through a screen. Assayas’ camera lingers on the pixelated faces, demonstrating just how artificial such communication might feel. Twice in the film, Maureen finds herself visiting the abodes of prominent people in her life, only to discover that they are entirely absent. Their presence is communicated through handwritten notes, their message delivered in voice-over. Is that really so different from the ghosts that Maureen claims to channel?

Maureen herself is almost a ghost. Her profession finds her acting primarily as an agent for other people, whether feeling out her brother’s old home for the new residents or in picking out clothes for her employer. Maureen is an avatar for others, a way for them to vicariously experience living. She can feel the things that they cannot feel, whether because the new owners of the house are not psychic or because her employer is too famous to shop herself. The irony being that this puts Maureen at a remove from her own experience, living vicariously through the experiences of others.

Dressing it up.

Dressing it up.

All of this is rather intriguing, and an effective set-up for the film. However, Personal Shopper struggles a little bit in tying these elements into an engaging narrative. Personal Shopper is every bit as a listless and unfocused as Maureen itself, equally unsure of what it actually wants and what is actually driving it. There is something thrilling and exciting in this, something thrilling in never knowing exactly where the film is going as it dances between genres much like Maureen herself flits between roles and functions.

However, there is also something slightly frustrating in all of this. For all however for all the giddy thrill of constructing a ghost story with extra sexting, the truth is that fifteen minutes of Maureen continuously checking her phone does not make for particularly compelling viewing. (Indeed, for a movie hinging on new technology, Personal Shopper‘s depiction of that technology feels positively retrograde, as if the production team never watched Sherlock.) The movie’s willingness to branch off on tangents means that a lot of the time and effort invested in certain ideas feels cynical.

Letting the matter lie.

Letting the matter lie.

Still, Personal Shopper might not always be riveting, but it is never dull. It is a deeply flawed movie, but those flaws are intrinsic to its identity.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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2 Responses

  1. I like your opening point about “personal disconnect and existential ennui filtered through the lens of a twenty-first century ghost story”. This certainly is a divisive film. Great review thanks. For me, there was little narrative substance. The tired old floating veils, self-levitating objects, and creaky floorboards show little originality; the only fresh contribution to the genre is the iPhone as a ghostly medium. But Stewart is outstanding.

    • I didn’t mind those tired old trappings. I just frustrated that they never coalesced into anything particularly compelling.

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