What’s worse than a hot mess? A cold one. And that’s what Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is, a clammy, lugubrious ghost story that churns up ideas, plots, and motivations aplenty and then refuses to even deliver a good scare. While forced to admit that the film’s storyline is preposterous, critics are bending over backwards to say something nice about this disaster and save face for Assayas, the respected creator of 2015’s provocative and acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria. Don’t listen.
Kristin Stewart plays a haunted young woman named Maureen. At the outset, she faces off with menacing ghosts in a French chateau her brother’s widow is trying to sell; it emerges that Maureen’s twin, Lewis, recently died in Paris. Later we’ll see Maureen glumly driving around that city’s more fashionable arrondissements on her motor scooter to fashion houses, picking up fabulous clothes and accessories for Kyra (Nora Von Waldstätten), the capricious, high-profile model/actress/whatever she works for.
Maureen can select and handle the outfits, but is forbidden to try them on, a prohibition that will lead to a sort of Single White Female reckoning down the line. Personal Shopper returns to some of the issues raised by Sils Maria—the uneasy boundaries between assistant and star, ambivalence toward celebrity—but in less deep and insightful ways. Additionally, Stewart inhabits yet another isolated character, but the role doesn’t add much to her acting repertoire except a few fearful reactions triggered by the spooky great beyond.
On one of her errands, Maureen meets a journalist named Ingo (Lars Eidinger), who is having an affair with Kyra. With his doughy, unsmiling moon face and chilly demeanor, Ingo hardly seems a likely swain for an international style icon. It is to this surly, uninviting confidant that Maureen unburdens herself—apropos of nothing—with a monologue describing her role as a medium in search of her dead brother. From now on, Personal Shopper will take a sharp swerve into the spirit world.
And boy, what a trip. Misfires dwelling in the zone between laughable and wince-worthy pile up thick and fast. A high-culture subplot of an avant-garde female abstract artist, picked up and toyed with, is dropped. Another subplot of a threat to Maureen’s health is also abandoned pronto. A ghost, rendered in murky CGI, looks like Freddy Mercury in a dress and does something that Maureen explains as “vomiting ectoplasm.” Low-tech “scary” signals from the spirit world (slamming doors, breaking glasses) more closely resemble college pranks than outreach from the dead. (At one point, a bloody death, inarticulately reported by Maureen over Skype, elicited derisive titters from the press screening audience.)
And finally a series of mysterious texts are supposed to exert a Svengali-like pull over Maureen, but instead they seem like tedious head games from an annoying troll. With video conversations and text dialogues taking up a lot of screen time, the movie tries to frame modern communication and the way it dominates our lives. The idea is ambitious and potentially arresting, but scenes of people fiddling with their phones have a way of slowing dramatic momentum. In other stylistic flourishes, Assayas cribs from high-class inspiration (Hitchcock) and low (Scream), achieving the focus and structural integrity of neither.
The film’s refusal to fully engage with any of its multiple themes and emotional states feels like a lazy shrug. Perhaps the weirdness of the whole enterprise is trying to beguile us into acceptance. But a spell required to hold Personal Shopper together doesn’t take. More glasses do get broken, though, and later Maureen’s in an empty room in Oman, looking dazed. Well, she’s not the only one.