That advice may well be applied to Olivier Assayas’s slippery, sensual Personal Shopper, which does for horror what Irma Vep (still the high watermark of this genre-hopping auteur’s filmography) did for the self-reflexive film-within-a-film. Filtering its central ghost story through a filmic hall of mirrors, the movie follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper-cum-medium working in Paris and waiting for a “sign” from her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis. As with Assayas’s other more genre-inclined films, this one’s always risky, sometimes silly, but never boring. A much-discussed scene finds Maureen engaged in a lengthy SMS-conversation with either a stalker or a ghost. It’s potentially laughable stuff, but Stewart and Assayas play the material with such openness and sincerity that it preempts (or at least tempers) those impulses.
The film’s genre trappings refract familiar themes of festering grief and emotional transference, which gain a canny resonance within the Paris fashion world that Maureen inhabits. Formally, Assayas is in full control: a particularly striking sequence simply takes the disembodied camera’s perspective as it moves through a hotel’s corridors, opening elevators and automatic doors along the way. Personal Shopper’s emotional core, though, is far more difficult to locate. Revealing nothing but the contours of Maureen’s relationship with her twin brother, Assayas’s film relies on Stewart to convey that crucial sense of grief. But without someone like Juliette Binoche to play off of (as in Clouds of Sils Maria), that task is far more difficult and is ultimately just beyond even Stewart’s considerable talents; the emotion slips away. Those who do manage to locate that strand, though, will likely be walloped by the enigmatic ending. The rest will find it a kind of cinematic game—engaging for a time, but lacking that crucial gestalt.
Published as part of Vancouver International Film Festival 2016 | Dispatch 2.