Personal Shopper (2016)
Written & Directed by Olivier Assayas
When they were children, Maureen and her twin brother Lewis made a promise that whichever one died first would send a message from the afterlife. Now in her mid-twenties, Maureen has come to France where her brother succumbed to their shared genetic heart condition. She works a day job as the personal shopper for a demanding model named Kyra and spends her evenings in Lewis’ old house hoping to make contact with him. One night a presence makes itself known to her, something angry and raging. The following morning she begins to receive text messages on her phone from a blocked number. The person on the other end of the phone appears to know a lot about Maureen, and she begins to lose her grip on her insanity.
Personal Shopper believes it is subverting our expectations or doing something profound, but the more I ruminate on this picture, the more I see its layers of seriousness fall away and reveal a cliched, boring film. The text message plot that takes over the movie in the second act plays out in an incredibly unsurprising way, and I would bet most viewers would know who is sending these texts without much sleuthing. The more interesting plot, Maureen’s encounter with the ghost gets dropped and then revisited in the third act. I am delighted with the ambiguity of the movie’s ending. The film doesn’t focus enough on any point and never develops supporting characters, so all we are left with is Kristen Stewarts angst act.
At its core, we have a story about a woman feeling a disconnect with her identity while she processes the death of her brother. Her job as a personal shopper creates a temptation to “wear the skin” of another person, but Kyra has expressly forbidden Maureen from trying on any of the clothes and jewelry she’s picking up. We never get the exploration of lost identity that this movie should have been about. I even think the presence briefly glimpses in the house was female, which opens up some great discussion about what exactly it is that Maureen is so desperate to communicate with.
Personal Shopper also commits a big movie faux pas, in my opinion. It presents text messaging as over the shoulder shots of a cell phone screen. The conversation on how to show text messages in film has been an ongoing one for at least the last decade, and there are more creative ways to display this on screen. Assayas opts for the laziest possible presentation, and that’s pretty disappointing. I think there were ways to present the texts in an engaging, tonally consistent, and non-distracting way. However, Personal Shopper feels like one big missed opportunity, the hint of a great character-driven story lost in the noise of a disjointed narrative.