Personal Shopper is a film that has eluded me all summer long. It was high on my radar; a quasi-paranormal film with traditional gothic undertones, all wrapped up under the guise of an independant drama? Yes. Yes I will, thank you. (Which, side note; seems to be the marketing tactic for horror these days. At least as far as A24 is concerned. ‘Yes, yes, it’s sort of a bit like a horror film, but there are so much subtle, deep emotional turmoil you won’t even notice the monsters lurking in the shadows’.) Also, I do tend to like Kristen Stewart’s apathy and punk-rock disregard for the Hollywood hamster wheel.
And, as I tend to do on our weekly horror podcast (wee plug, #sorrynotsorry), I’m going to be 100% upfront in saying that I did not quite get Personal Shopper. Though, after watching it twice, back-to-back, I’m not sure if Director Olivier Assayas intended for us at all to unravel the mystery that subtly grows with each Read Receipt notification.
Here’s the trailer, if you haven’t yet caught the film.
Before I get into spoiler territory, let’s get down to brass taxes. Should you see Personal Shopper, if you haven’t already? Well, it’s currently streaming on Netflix, so if ease of access is high on your list, I’ve just saved you from reading another 1500 words. (But please do stay, we’re having tea! Well, I am..)
Personal Shopper follows a twenty-something American in Paris (Stewart) who works as a personal shopper for a high-profile fashion industry professional. Early on she classifies herself as a medium, though what that means is not entirely clear. Her recently deceased twin brother also shared that gift, but it seems he believed in the paranormal aspects of it, whereas our protagonist is unsure. Before his sudden passing, the twins made a pact that when one of them died, they would send the other a message should the afterlife actually exist. So we wait.
Now, while typing that wee synopsis out, in my head I was thinking, ‘damn, that sounds like an interesting and potentially creepy film‘. But after sitting through the Personal Shopper, twice – I’m not sure how important the plot arch actually relates to the story Assayas is trying to tell. Yes, there are some paranormal and creepy elements that are well executed. Yes, the emotional journey Stewart takes as Maureen is interesting, and we intimately follow her through what is likely the most lonely and solemn period of her life (Case in point, Stewart’s supporting actor in this film is a cellphone).
But this film isn’t about whether or not there is an afterlife. If it was, the ending would have sorted through some of the paranormal imagery and mystery presented in the film. Instead, it chooses to be silent and ambiguous, in the frustrating way that dark indies tend to. What is all a dream? (Don’t worry, this film does not boil down to whether or not it was a dream sequence, but you get my point)
Personal Shopper is not quite horror, though I’m sure you expected that already. There were moments where it ever so slightly took us there, serving up some brief but deeply haunting imagery. Though, as soon as we had a taste of the paranormal in our mouths, the film sped away from it faster than Maureen from the haunting signs she pleaded so desperately for (true).
So, if you are looking for a recommendation, I say see it. But watch the film as though it’s a drama, and don’t hold the synopsis too tightly to your chest. It will only let you down. If you are a fan of subtle horror; The Witch, The Invitation, Rosemary’s Baby- you will thoroughly enjoy aspects of this film. Plus, maybe after we can have a brainstorm sesh and try to figure out what really happened in the end.
Super Spoiler Territory
My biggest issue taken with this film is how boldly it veers into charted waters, all the while gripping tightly to its cards. It is a ghost story. A murder mystery. A thriller. And then, it decided to be none of those. As soon as one theme is presented, the film pulls backwards, abandoning ship. Instead, it chooses to focus on Kristen Stewart’s permanent pained expression and emotional journey following a B-plot akin to a millennial Nancy Drew Mystery; ‘Nancy and the Case of the Mysterious Cellphone Contact’. It is almost unfair, really. I want us to stay in the Gothic, creaking house with the digital ectoplasm. I want us to communicate with the spirits using the tools from Maureen‘s arsenal of youtube videos. I want us to solve the mystery of her employer’s murder.
A little ambiguity makes for a wonderful film, don’t get me wrong. But a complete story if the sum of its parts. The ending cannot exist without both the beginning and the middle. It needs to grow to something, to blossom on the screen. For me, this film blossomed at 30 minutes with a terrifying paranormal display, and then retreated to an emotional drama that felt altogether a little dull. It was like being forced to watch ducks swim after seeing a light show. Unless one of those ducks breathes fire, I’m not really interested.
Why would I want to follow Maureen on her personal shopping escapades after you’ve already gone and shown her the answer to her plaguing question? I suppose a ghost is simply not good enough – we need to hear from her ghost. And so we dart through the city on Maureen‘s motorized scooter, following her as she picks up clothing items equal to the cost of several middle-class mortgage payments. Each time slumping the bag half-haphazardly over her shoulder in the apathetic way only an awkward, angular Stewart could portray. We climb the train to London to fetch earrings and a bracelet. We catch it back. Oh look, a murder. Nope, back to apathy.
Let’s get to the Confusing Bits
I mean, really- what ghost haunts a cellphone? Are we supposed to continue believing that the ghost is the spirit of Lewis (her deceased twin brother) the entire time? Or are we to suspect someone alive and close to her? Her quasi-boyfriend she communicates with on skype, her boss’s now recent ex? We aren’t ever allowed to know. But this mysterious contact incites her to do increasingly risky behaviour, or.. does she uses the contact as an excuse to partake in risky behaviors? I feel like every question I ask, Assayas’ directing returns with a shrug and a ‘sure‘.
Maureen grows increasingly bold, taking an expensive and shiny gown to meet her mysterious texter (who doesn’t show up.. perhaps cuz ghost?), and soon something more sinister occurs. Kyra, her socialite boss, is murdered. Maureen is the one to discover this grisly sight and side note; it is a very well executed scene. The deep shadows on the jarring image of Kyra’s body in the bathroom laying in wet pool of muted blood was very unsettling. The texter becomes increasingly demanding. The jewelry Maureen had dropped off appears back in her apartment. It seems as if we’re setting up for a murder-framing plot (*that doesn’t quite have anything to do with the paranormal), when Maureen is forced to trek back to the planned meeting place of her mystery texter..
And that’s where this film completely loses me.
Maureen, jewelry in-hand, heads to the hotel room. I think her plan is to do a drop-n-dash to avoid meeting whoever it is that is potentially setting her up for Kyra’s murder, ghostly or otherwise. The film then obnoxiously fades out right as the sound of another person..? entity..? enters the scene.
For me, what followed was a HOLY SHIT moment that turned out to be another steaming pile of ambiguity. The camera follows nothing (literally nothing) as it trails down the hall, enters an elevator, descends to the ground floor, and exits the hotel. It is an extremely creepy, eerie scene to ‘watch‘ a ghost calmly and quietly depart a hotel where the workers continue about, business as usual. I absolutely loved it.. when I thought I understood what it meant.
..WHAT ARE WE WATCHING??
I thought I had figured it out. After we follow this ghostly exit, we follow another living one. Kyra‘s ex departs that very hotel room, then the elevator, then the hotel. At this point, I thought we had reached the end of the film. This was the HOLY SHIT moment. I had solved the case! The ex had killed Maureen in that hotel room and made it appear a suicide. All in an attempt to cover up his murder of Kyra – pinning it on an unstable Maureen. The scene of the ghost departing the hotel was that of the recently deceased Maureen, finally learning in death there is an afterlife. Now condemned to it. Holy shit.
But, then it turned out to be.. not that at all. There was still a good 25-30 minutes left in the film. Maureen (alive and well..ish) talks to her sister-in-law, she talks to her sister-in-law’s new boyfriend, she heads to see her quasi-boyfriend and get away from it all. Some glasses break. And we still don’t really know if it’s Lewis’ spirit or not. And the film closes as it started, leaving an unsatisfying paranormal taste in our mouths.
Last Things Last
Personal Shopper frustrated me in a way that a film hasn’t in a long time. (I’m lying. The recent reboot of the Mummy frustrated me immensely). I still don’t know how I feel about this film. I’m still thinking about it. I’m not sure if what I didn’t understand is supposed to be understood. And that doesn’t make a film artful, nor does it make an audience smarter for having watched it. It makes it a small waste of time, if I’m being truly honest. I feel like I watched a thousand little vignettes of a hundred different plot lines, all stitched together with that obnoxious fade out until the film reached its desired screen-time.
But what frustrated me most of all, was that there were moments of this film I found myself completely entranced by. The haunting scenes at Lewis’ creaky mansion. The tense and surprising ghostly apparition at Maureen’s sister-in-law’s house. A grief-stricken Maureen calling out to the dead that she doesn’t quite believe in. But every time it sucked me in and had me enjoying it, it went and did something entirely bland.
Oliver Assayas does know how to scare you, but it seems he just doesn’t care to.
Personal Shopper is currently streaming on Netflix and available for rent/purchase on Amazon. If you’ve seen the film, sound off in the comments below!