Originally published on Flickering Myth on 08/03/17.
The heaps and heaps of critical and Cannes-lead praise for Olivier Assayas’s 21st-century answer to Poltergeist for the #deep crowd, should, in many ways, really speak for itself. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination, a film for everyone, nor is it a film for the horror crowd, or really, anyone who has ever seen and enjoyed a mainstream blockbuster. What it is, really, underneath the heaps of cleverly gothic photography and a neat little link to the fashion world, is a seriously unsettled mishmash of far-out fantasy, philosophical meditations on the prospect of death and the beyond, and, most bizarrely of all, a weirdly unresolved nod at prolonged sexual mystery.
What’s most off about Personal Shopper from almost the get go is surprisingly, just how muddled the critically-acclaimed Assayas’ thoughts seemed to be here. It’s such an unusual blend of clashing tones, not just leaning on both the grounded and the fantastical, but building the entire film around this weird duality between them both.
A day-in-the-life drama about an American struggling to make ends-meet in the Paris fashion industry, runs literally alongside both a psychological thriller and an old-fashioned 50s-style haunting. It’s three films in one, and whilst two thirds of them just about work alone, the constant criss-crossing of plot threads and these really hefty, constantly warring tones makes for quite a jarring watch. It’s hard to keep a hold on exactly which genre Stewart’s permanently clueless Maureen has wandered in to at any one time, and the result is a film that feels totally all over the place mentally.
There’s no denying that Assayas is a talented filmmaker. Both the film’s standard drama and its most tense and psychological moments really shine terrifically, and Stewart is for once, an inspired choice of lead. Personal Shopper is finally the film where her constant intensity and chiseled beauty is essential to both the plot and mood; she’s truly irreplaceable here. The problems really lie in just how inconsistent Assayas’ scripting is.
Giant holes are caved into key narratives, supposedly to add suspense but really just taking out any sense of finality from the core mystery; important characters are introduced and simultaneously shunned in the space of a conversation; and the film’s central emotional turmoil ultimately adds up to little more than a seriously antiquated ghost effect that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Goosebumps. Quite how this madcap blend of ideas actually came together is unclear, but it’s totally baffling and difficult to get behind cinematically.
There’s no denying that Personal Shopper is a unique experience. From a technical standpoint, aside from some occasionally dodgy effects and a spot of frustrating editing, there’s not a lot to fault, and as the film’s inescapable star, Stewart really proves her arthouse worth. It’s just that there’s too many big, conflicting ideas here; nothing feels fully-fleshed enough to be properly tangible.
If Assayas had made a ghost story, fair enough. If he had shifted the tone and made a psychological drama instead, again, understandable. Or an emotionally-strung tell-all about the fashion industry, whatever. But to try and stick them all together with little more than a line of sellotape and a heavy-handed touch, it just doesn’t make for an entertaining or even really that interesting a watch. There’s too many dead-ends, too many underdeveloped ideas, and not nearly enough actual progress.
Personal Shopper is bold enough, and it’s easy to see why it’s attracted as much attention as it has, but stepping back from the critical buzz it just feels hollow. Too many good ideas, but not enough lasting ones.
Personal Shopper is out in UK cinemas 17th March.