Personal Shopper (2017) (Review)

Ghost stories don't cut it for me; with the copious amount of new technologies available to film-makers nowadays, the sub-genre feels defunct because the subtleties and nuances have been all but wiped out with the increasing presence of CGI and special effects. A sub-genre that relied so much on imagination and creativity has been replaced with garish tricks of the trade, diluting the whole sub-genre into something completely unrecognisable and uninspired. Beyond the odd indie that gets it right every now and then, partly in thanks to a restriction larger studios do not need to comply with as strictly, no film centred around the supernatural has amazed (my infatuation for the Ghostbusters reboot aside) and even when lowering your expectations considerably, the pickings are pitiful. Is it time to write the sub-genre off? I thought so. That is, until Personal Shopper arrived. On the back of a heap of buzz and acclaim, I sharpened my pitchfork, expecting another overblown failure for the sub-genre that may have very well have been the final nail in the coffin. How wrong I was.

Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper and general assistant for wealthy clients in major cities around the world, is waiting for a sign that her twin brother has safely based into the spirit world, having recently died from a generic heart problem they both shared. Receiving a number of anonymous but mysterious texts, she attempts to verify the communication, believing it to be a ghost from the spirt world. Yearning for substance to her beliefs, she must decide whether to trust her instincts and respond to 'unknown' or risk proceeding down a very dark path. The French-production employs a relatively unknown cast outside of the lead role and is directed by Olivier Assayas, premiering last year at Cannes and slowly but surely rolling out internationally.

Disregarding my disinterest for ghost stories and the supernatural in general, it's time for a huge apology; Kristen Stewart, you are really, really terrific. Unfortunately attached to a certain Young-Adult series that unjustly earned her an image she is only now beginning to shake, her talent is utterly clear in Personal Shopper, providing an absorbing - hypnotising almost - performance as Maureen. A commanding presence, Stewart alleviates any doubts you may have stepping into the film (and of the star herself), delivering a transcendental star turn that will earn her far more appreciation from myself, and surely many others, in the future. Her personal style (slightly edgy and more restive as the narrative progresses) is a perfect fit for Personal Shopper - almost as if it is custom-made role - and contrasts the perfectly-placed elegance of the luxurious lifestyle of clients brilliantly. Continually pensive and considerate, you cannot take your eyes of Stewart deliverance of a masterclass in restraint and refinement; even in some moments which could be considered 'dull' to those not fully invested in the film, Stewart is arresting and crafts a genuine emotional response. It really is a testament to her talent and skill as an artist that she can engross you as exceptionally as she does. More than deserving of her name above the title and my new found respect and admiration for her, Kristen Stewart steals Personal Shopper and elevates it considerably.

And that's not to say the rest of the film is bad - it really isn't. Assayas very competently drenches scenes in opulence and luxury, mastered with nautical colour palettes, soft saturations and beautiful gradients, conjuring a visually appealing and pleasing film. He further prevents the typical feeling associated with more recent ghost stories coming into fruition; Assayas knows just how long to leave the camera lingering, how to play with the light to encourage the audience to question 'was that a ghost or just a reflection of light' and ensures Stewart is in almost every frame - never a bad decision - showing he has a profound understanding regarding the important of self-control, within both the genre and his own film. As the writer too, Assayas' smartest decision is infusing elements from a plethora of genres into play; at times a psychological thriller, in the next breath an intense character drama, followed by brief moments of flat-out horror, Personal Shopper is a masterful distillation of a genre traits and quirks, producing something that remains constantly refreshing and utterly unique throughout. There is literally no comparison point: it is so individualistic but never for the sake of doing so, determined to tell an interesting story that delves deeper than the surface level and the generic cheap thrills and watered-down scares that are now typical in many gothic films. It certainly will not be everybody's cup of tea but even those who do not warm to this admittedly challenging type of story, will still be able to appreciate how sophisticated and complex it is.

Despite the general superiority of the writing, directing and acting, Personal Shopper lost me on a couple of occasions; during the third act, in the home stretch so to speak, it never captures a sense of urgency, continuing along at a contemplative pace where it begins to drag its heels. While many will appreciate that consistency in pacing, it becomes something a little frustrating, failing to connect for me as efficiently as the rest of the film had. Mid-scene fade-to-black work very efficiently for the majority of the film's runtime but as they increase in regularity towards the end of the film, it begins to appear lazy rather than atmospheric (as previous scenes had), as if Assayas can't quite streamline and cohesively tie the film together. Its continual musing and inability to answer all the questions you have may cause an upset too, with the film pinning down very little and leaving most of the heavy-lifting, outside of Stewart's performance, to the audience themselves - who must fill in the gaps and interpret meanings themselves. Some people may like that trust being placed in them, others won't; I mainly like it but I wish the film was more assertive and assured in this sense, rather than (seemingly) ducking away from the film's bigger thoughts.

Also, I cannot decide whether I love that ending or just feel really irritated by it. Give me a second watch later down the line and I'll let you know.

Personal Shopper reinvigorates a once lifeless sub-genre; a film that I though would be dead-on-arrival actually delivers some of the best 'ghost movie' work in years. Doing this by mainly leaving the audience's imagination to tick over absent of garish CGI, a genuinely eerie atmosphere and tone is crafted,  delivering a ghost film of nuance and subtlety. It frustratingly leaves you with an absence of answers to questions that have pervaded throughout the film, trusting the audience to assemble their interpretations, threatening to render the entire picture pointless. However, with Stewart's exquisite performances, supporting well by director and writer Olivia Assayas' strokes on the project, there is more than enough to enjoy and appreciate here. Personal Shopper is ultimately a very effective piece of cinema that currently resides in my top ten of the year. We'll see how long it continues its positioning, but you should all see this film and realise what a genuinely fantastic actress Kristen Stewart is. Again, I'm sorry I ever doubted you.

But my god does she need to get her grammar under control. Why, Kristen, why ?


Summary: With great thanks to a combination of genres in play and helmed by a magnificent performance from Kristen Stewart, director and writer Olivia Assayas crafts a ghost story of great intensity and skill, showing there are signs of life in this unique piece of cinema.