I’ve watched Personal Shopper twice, with a combined running time of 210 minutes. I have paid for three cinema tickets and one Amazon rental, totalling about fifty of your Earth pounds. I do not like this movie. So, you might ask, Sam, why are you spending more time on it with this, presumably, hugely biased, review? Because I have to get it off my chest. The first time I saw it, in the cinema, I didn’t have my notebook and I hadn’t planned on reviewing it so I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, so, I bided my time, letting the fury build over the months and waited for the DVD release so I could finally have my say. Also, because there was no way I was paying another fifteen quid to watch this in the cinema again. Fair warning: This review will be completely packed with spoilers, throughout. But you probably shouldn’t watch it anyway, so who cares?
Personal Shopper is two different films that were smashed together in a terrible industrial accident leaving them unrecognisable even to their closest relatives.
Film number 1 is a tense, personal thriller in which a “Personal Shopper” for a troubled model grieves over the loss of her twin brother. She struggles with the fear that the congenital heart condition they share could kill her at any time. She becomes embroiled in a worrying, text-message based relationship with a mystery man against her better judgement. The Model is murdered by her ex-boyfriend who, it turns out, was the mystery texter. She confronts him in a hotel room and [scene missing].
Film number 2 is about a personal shopper who is also a medium who doesn’t really believe in ghosts but also does believe in ghosts and watches documentaries about spiritualism on a train, in case the viewer doesn’t know what a séance is. The viewer is then repeatedly told that ghosts deffo exist 100% or maybe not, and then there’s a ghost for a bit and then it’s gone and then [scene missing] something something she’s dead at the end, possibly?
As with many films that I don’t like, the reason has more to do with the good parts than the bad. There are long stretches of this film that I really enjoyed. I really want to see film number 1. The parts that could be picked from the wreckage were really good. The bad parts just got in the way and made it impossible to concentrate on anything else. The [Scene Missing]s above weren’t just for comic effect, this film doesn’t feel like it has an ending. Or rather, neither of the films that were erroneously and simultaneously projected have an ending. But I’m getting ahead of myself; you probably want to know some details. Or maybe you don’t, but here they are anyway.
Personal Shopper stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright, an American in Paris working as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). I don’t know if I’d employ a personal shopper who dresses like a fourteen-year-old Pearl Jam fan but what do I know about fashion? Maureen has a boyfriend; Gary (Ty Olwin) who is working in Muscat (The capital of Oman, which I totally knew and didn’t have to Google), their relationship is strained by the distance and not knowing when they’ll be able to meet next. Kyra’s newly jilted boyfriend, Ingo (Lars Eidinger) is just sort of around and then becomes very important and then is or isn’t important, depending on how you feel about it. Lewis (Maureen’s deceased brother) does not appear in the film (or does he? woOOOOooo) but his widow, Lara is, played by the excellent Sigrid Bouaziz. Stewart is genuinely interesting to watch, her stressed-out, mopey-hipster persona fits perfectly with the character. She makes this film a lot more watchable.
Now, contrary to accepted wisdom for reviews, I feel like I might need to go through the film blow-by-blow because this film can only be understood in minute detail, if at all.
The film opens with Maureen spending the night in her late brother’s house to see if she can contact his spirit. This part sort of feels like a horror movie, if only because it is long shots of a woman wandering around a dark house for slightly too long. There is very little dialogue and there’s a brief look at a cool, smokey ghost. Pretty good opening. Fine so far. Maureen reports her lack of progress in contacting the spirit of her brother to the house’s new prospective owners. Two of the most patient characters ever to grace the silver screen. They aren’t rushing her to find the ghost or move on, there is literally no impetus from them to move the plot along, but then their purpose becomes apparent: The woman whose name I can’t be bothered to look up, mentions, clunkily, that there is a painter that Maureen might be interested in called Hilma Af Klint. A (real-life) painter whose work predates the abstract movement by several decades and is said to originate from the spirit world. This is where the film hits the first of many bumps. You are treated, patient viewer, to a character in a film watching a documentary on her phone on a train. This happens three times and each times lasts between one and three minutes. It feels like the filmmaker just wanted to talk about their favourite artist. It is a jarring and unpleasant experience to be held in such little regard as an audience that the film won’t even stoop to having its characters talk to you. Teacher has given up for the day and has put a video on to keep the children quiet.
We are treated to some scenes of Maureen talking to designers and buying clothes for Kyra. We see Kyra’s spacious apartment and then Maureen’s tiny flat for comparison. Maureen briefly talks to her boyfriend over Skype and then we watch her watch another documentary about spiritualism. Great stuff.
She buys more clothes; Kyra is late for a photoshoot, showing her to be feckless and unreliable. The photographer is also scared of her, apparently. We learn that Maureen must, under no circumstances wear the clothes that she buys for Kyra. We’re told several times because we’re a bunch of dummies who don’t understand how films work. More evidence that Kyra is a monster is piled on as she refuses to return some leather trousers that need to be returned to the designer. We get it. She’s awful. We get it. Usually, you’d try to build sympathy for a character destined for tragedy but y’know, whatever.
Maureen attends a heart exam, so we can learn about her condition. How come this film sometimes knows how to give us information and sometimes doesn’t? We also get the first hint at the theme, when Maureen says: “I don’t know where I’m going to be in six months”. Aah, themes. Remember those? From films?
Then we meet Kyra’s boyfriend, the clean cut, Ingo. In one of the many scenes that actually work really well, we learn something about both characters through some interesting dialogue. They talk about work, she cryptically says she’s “Waiting” in Paris. She talks about her heart condition. It’s good; it’s what films should be.
Maureen spends another night at Lewis’ house. There are some ghostly happenings: Taps are turned on, knocking, dragging sounds, you know, the usual. The ghost scratches a cross into a table at which point, Maureen realises it isn’t the spirit of her brother. The ghost reveals itself in one of the more interesting interpretations of an apparition: Smokey, with flickering lights, like ink or fabric under water. The face of the ghost briefly appears, to vomit up some ectoplasm and then disappears without a gratuitous jump scare or anything. This supernatural part of the movie was the part I wasn’t really interested in but it’s actually not that bad on its own, it just feels so superfluous to everything else. A story about her obsessively researching contact with the dead only to be left alone and afraid in a dark house until she comes to terms with her grief would’ve been fine.
An unnecessary supernatural subplot? What is this? A Guillermo del Toro movie?
At this point we enter what I like to call, “The Bad Times”: The portion of the film almost entirely dedicated to Maureen sending and receiving text messages on the Eurostar. It’s one of the more interesting things that happens, plot-wise, but boy, is it hard to watch. There’s about 6 minutes with no dialogue broken only by a few words before we’re back to textford-upon-sea for more goddamned texts. I swear films have made this interesting? Haven’t they? Having the texts appear on screen with the character looking at their phone, maybe? Anything, but this torturous parade of close-ups of Maureen’s bloody iPhone. Maybe something else could happen in the meantime? Maybe? But no, pretty much for the rest of the film we’re forced to garner information from the increasingly troubling text conversation between Maureen and an unknown man.
He asks her various, vague but intrusive questions, makes vague but intrusive sexual advances and generally behaves like an unforgivable psychopath. He becomes incensed when she doesn’t answer, he wants to know what scares her, a red flag, if ever I heard one.
But still there are parts of this that kind of work. Mystery phone jerk is definitely a piece of garbage, but at this point, he’s the only person really showing an interest in her. Maureen goes back to Kyra’s apartment while Kyra is away and tries on her clothes in a cathartic act of rebellion. She climbs onto Kyra’s bed and the camera tastefully retreats as she begins to masturbate. It felt like a satisfying emotional catharsis for the character only mired by the confusing mess of the rest of the film.
Maureen goes to see Lara (Lewis’ Widow) in her new home. Maureen tells her that the ghost she encountered was not Lewis and that it has probably moved on. Is she an expert? Has she done this before? She seems to know what she’s talking about but we’re never shown any evidence that she does. Lara restates the theme: “I’m not confident about the future” and says that she has met someone new. And then, because the film knows you want to know more about it, then, Lara, right, are you listening, Lara recommends a film from the seventies about spiritualism and we get to watch, what feels like, the whole thing. What’s more, instead of it being just on Maureen’s phone (or for variety, her laptop), we get to watch parts of it, full screen. Or not really full screen because the clip is in 4:3 aspect ratio so we get it squished between the letterbox, a little box in the middle of the screen. Because we’re a bunch of losers who don’t deserve anything better.
Mystery Text Lunatic sends Maureen to a hotel room in one of Kyra’s dresses which she obligingly does for some reason, and then she returns to Kyra’s apartment where she discovers that Kyra has been murdered. Cool, some plot. The murder scene is suitably gruesome and the shots reveal just enough to heighten the tension without being gratuitous. Maureen hears another ghost as she’s leaving, which feels tacked on. The policeman who interviews her is completely unfazed by the idea of a “presence” in the room. Does this happen all the time? Is this a universe where ghosts are just all over the place? Who knows. Upon turning her phone back on Maureen discovers a series of increasingly furious texts from Mystery Prick. COME TO THE HOTEL; WHERE ARE YOU; I’M COMING TO GET YOU; I’M OUTSIDE; I’M COMING UP THE STAIRS; I’M OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT, but when she looks through the spy hole, nothing. Solid thriller fair, executed well. Why isn’t the rest of the film like this? Maureen returns to the hotel room where Unknown Clown catches up with her.
Now. Here is where the real problems start. The first time through, I’d been kind of tentatively enjoying the film up to this point, I wasn’t into the ghost thing, but I’d been having fun with the increasing tension and uncertainty but at this point, for me, the film swerves into a ravine.
Maureen is now trapped in the hotel room with mystery man and we, the viewer, are outside. The camera pans around the hallway to the lift, the lift doors open and close. Cut to: Lobby, the lift doors open and the camera pans to the entrance apparently following someone walking across the lobby but there is no-one there. The automatic doors open, first the inner door, then the outer door. Cut to: Exterior, the square in front of the hotel. The wind gently scatters leaves on a cloudy Paris afternoon. It is not at all clear what just happened but maybe we’ll get more clues in a minute? Cut to: Outside the hotel room: Ingo, the jilted lover and suspected murderer leaves the hotel room, I think we all knew he was Mystery Shitbag but now it’s confirmed. He follows the same route out of the hotel as we were just shown but this time, the police meet him outside. As they are leading him to their car, he struggles free and fires a gun at them. Fade to black. This film likes a good fade.
Right, we’re on the home stretch now. There’s about 15 minutes left. Maureen meets Lara in a cafe and tells her about Ingo confessing to Kyra’s murder and how she’s going to go and meet Gary in Oman. We then have another scene, in which Maureen talks to Erwin, Lara’s new boyfriend in Lara’s garden. They discuss the afterlife and Lewis for a bit and it doesn’t really go anywhere. Erwin leaves and the shot stays on Maureen. A ghostly figure appears in the window behind her, moves to stage left and the glass he is carrying (do ghosts need drinks?) continues to move after he disappears. It then falls to the ground because ghosts hate glassware and crockery.
Maureen then begins her journey to Muscat to meet Gary. When she arrives, she is shown into a small house, as she walks into one of the rooms looking for Gary, another floating glass falls and smashes.
“Lewis?” she asks.
Thump, comes the reply. Thus begins the final interaction of the film in which Maureen interrogates an unknown apparition, which responds in loud thumps. One for yes, two for no (I hope, otherwise this scene is even more confusing). The last part being:
“Lewis, is that you?”
“Lewis, is that you?”
“Is it just me?”
Fade to white.
Now. She’s dead right? She died in the hotel room, right? Ingo killed her in the hotel room and this is the afterlife or she’s Jacob’s Laddered herself or something. So what the hell was all that stuff since the hotel room? Was that real? Was it shown in the wrong order? It couldn’t have been because she knew about Ingo’s arrest, which only happened after she must have died. What’s going on? This is why I dragged you along, explaining this entire movie in unnecessary detail; I need you to understand how awful this ending is. It’s not ambiguous, because it’s obvious what’s happening, the problem is that I don’t understand the mechanics of it. Did the journey to the afterlife include a chat in a garden with a nice beardy man? The journey to Oman makes more sense, if anything, as many cultures depict death as a literal journey to another place. But that whole chunk, the cafe and the garden and Transparent McGlass-Smash, what was that? It’s so jarring to be messed around and have my time wasted by a film that is so intent on making some tired point about spiritualism and the afterlife it forgot to be a film. It’s well shot, the performances are good all round, the dialogue is clunky in places but fine overall when people aren’t spreading exposition peanut butter all over everything. Writer/Director Olivier Assayas, clearly knows how to frame a shot and build tension but seems so convinced that his dimwitted audience won’t understand anything unless they are told through documentary footage. And yet despite underestimating the audience, he somehow fails to provide an ending that ties up any part of the plot, if taken at face value.
I don’t want to watch films in which I watch documentaries. I don’t want to watch films in which I am forced to sit through people’s text conversations in real time. I don’t want these things. Films are a compressed representation of events. Films show the minimum information to the viewer in order for them to understand. Films do not have a required reading list and they do not assume that the viewer just thawed from 10,000 years trapped in ice. Bad film. No. Bad.
Review by Sam Rae
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2 comments on “FILM REVIEW: Personal Shopper”
Great thorough review. I wasn’t going to let myself even think about seeing it when I read about the two different storylines shoved into it, so thank you for being honest and confirming my hunch. Unfortunate because I did want to give Stewart the benefit of the doubt.
What a great review, putting it the way you did does make me wonder what the whole unneeded ghost story was about! There were some great themes in the movie as well, but as you pointed out slightly ruined by other random plot lines shoved in!