Assayas Can't Close Deal With Obscured 'Personal Shopper'

Directed by: Olivier Assayas; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: C

Olivier Assayas seems to have discovered a new muse in Kristen Stewart, an actress whose specific sort of grim, troubled dramatic aura struggled over the years under the weight of awkward Hollywood outings, from the cumbersome reimagining of Snow White to, well, y'know … Twilight. That bad rap has gradually dissipated as she's transitioned to reputable indie projects, filling out roles that range from a Guantanamo Bay soldier to a farmland law-class instructor, but she hasn't yet landed that crucial leading role that'll completely distract from her past foibles. Perhaps this will eventually happen under the guidance of Assayas' intuitive and layered filmmaking, but his first film with her in a leading role is unable to do so. Despite a steadfast and raw performance from Stewart, Personal Shopper can't figure out what kind of character study it wants to become, leaving one waiting for the true spirit of the film to arrive amid a hodgepodge of grief, temptation, and absorption with the supernatural.

Assayas opens the film with Maureen (Stewart) feeling out the paranormal presence within a dim, creaky house, positioning herself as a medium between this world and the afterlife. She hopes for a sign from her twin brother, who recently died of a genetic defect and who could also interact with spirits, going so far as to stall her plans to leave Paris until she makes tangible contact with him. To afford Parisian life, Maureen serves as a personal shopper and quasi-stylist for a high-profile celebrity, sometimes purchasing clothing for her to wear in public and other times merely "renting" the items. Being that she's a maddening woman to work for who imposes rules upon her shopper and skirts deadlines for returning items, it's not a great career for Maureen. The complications of her layers of communication merge when she receives mysterious messages from an "unknown" sender, forcing her to decode what's real and what's from beyond the pale.

Maybe it seems like typecasting to view spiritual mediums as more casual bohemian types unconcerned with the material things of this world, but Maureen's soulful angst and the contemplation involved with being at least partially attuned to the spirit world clash with the superficiality of shopping for and dressing someone else. Sure, communing with the dead doesn't pay the bills very well unless it's from an entrepreneur who aggressively publicizes themselves, yet there's a strong disconnect between what Maureen divulges about her comprehension of the paranormal and her high-dollar acquisitions at local boutiques. This happens so noticeably that they almost seem like two versions of the same person, two entirely different examinations of the context impacting their lives instead of a cohesive portrait of someone struggling to juggle both realms of an existence. Assayas may have intent there, depicting the true Maureen and the false version of herself she's created to sustain her existence in Paris; if that's the case, the disparity between the two backfires on his intentions, lacking focus instead of emphasizing duality.

Little of this has to do with Kristen Stewart's performance in Personal Shopper, who projects the same type of enthralling melancholy attitude upon both sides of Maureen, enhanced by her signature narrow-eyed gazes and distinctive body movement that shifts from bold assertiveness to recessive discomfort. What could be a tremendous medium for exploring the depths of Stewart's capabilities inside the skin of an overburdened lead character instead struggles to preserve the illusion that she is, in fact, the same person throughout. Profoundness gets drawn out of Stewart when Maureen interacts with the spirit realm in scenes resembling the moving parts of a supernatural thriller, but then shortly after she's scooted into the position of buying thousand-dollar garments and resisting the urge to try them on, stitching together oddly cold perspectives on the realistic minutiae of her diminishing stability in everyday activities. Stewart conveys the progression of her character even when Assayas' script doesn't possess enough material to do the same with her daily routine.

A big source of frustration with Personal Shopper comes in a drawn-out sequence where Maureen responds to message after message on her cellphone, all while she's traveling via train between shopping destinations. Beyond the peculiarities of why she's indulging the conversation in the first place, and continues to indulge it, this amounts to an exceedingly bothersome cinematic experience on the surface that hinges on seemingly -- and, soon after, deliberately -- out-of-character actions from Maureen, regardless of her supernatural perception. Dramatic momentum gets lost in this expansive text conversation, which spills over into the remainder of the film's developments and overshadows whatever deeper intentions Assayas yearned to achieve with Maureen's grasp on the death of her brother. Sure, an air of ambiguity hangs over this dialogue with an "unknown" participant and the specific knowledge that they possess, but the contents of the texts themselves gradually undermine the mystique by promptly narrowing the possibilities of who or what might be on the other end.

Maureen's paranormal waiting game and the pressures and taboos of her unrewarding job initially appear as if they'll remain the cerebral stimuli of Personal Shopper, but Olivier Assayas isn't content with letting these elements of psychological suspense play out on their own terms. His film, whose two sides felt like mixing water and oil at many points, eventually transforms into something else entirely that doesn't play out like a rational extension of what comes before it, nor like something that those invested in a low-key supernatural drama would anticipate; those who saw the abrupt macabre direction taken by the tone of Clouds of Sils Maria might not be that surprised. Impacted by another of Assayas' fade-to-black evasions of key details, it's tough to know what to make of Personal Shopper's viewpoint on communicating with the dead and moving on after tragedy, especially when it builds toward a conclusion that's dependent on esoteric vagueness and engineered for interpretation. Whether Maureen sees dead people or not matters less without a sturdier grip on who she really is.

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