Dramatic events occur in Personal Shopper, but Assayas backgrounds them to Maureen’s ennui. This classic trait of indie or highbrow cinema can be inert, and the Stewart of the Twilight films can certainly make her face and affect look dead. Here, it’s either the circumstances or her appreciating skills that turn the boredom of the economically comfortable into something more compelling. Assayas borrows from the Dardennes brothers by filming a long scene of Maureen on a moped navigating the Parisian streets, lending the scene an ethereal quality that complements how joyless this experience has become for Maureen. Stewart is doing subtle, indefinable work in communicating how badly she wants to be anywhere else.
In addition to a baseline of calm irritation, Stewart is showing off considerable range in Personal Shopper. Chasing spirits around a potentially haunted house is impressively physical, as the mere outline of her body in the dark is enough to show her nervousness and agitation. A centerpiece sequence involving text messages from unknown sources thoroughly breaks her out from any flatness, as she goes from impatience to self-loathing to stifled grief and misery. Personal Shopper is the most comprehensive work in Stewart’s continuing renaissance, appropriate as she’s onscreen for well over 90% of the runtime.
Despite Stewart’s achievements and Assayas’ reliable style and mood establishment, Personal Shopper is fatally flawed in how it discusses and approaches ghosts. Maureen is introduced inspecting the home that Lewis used to live in for spectral evidence, both because of her mission and because the future buyers want to make sure it isn’t haunted by anything malevolent. The film simply takes it for granted that ghosts are real, going on to show them with cheesy effects unbecoming of Assayas’ stature. It’s difficult for this viewer to get on the film’s wavelength if it’s going to assert something patently false as a true part of a world that in no way differs from the real one. Introducing a character as a medium marks them as an idiot or a thief and immediately puts them at arm’s length. Sure, a film can create whatever rules it likes, but something’s off in Personal Shopper. Maybe because there are no doubters, or maybe because the film never entertains the possibility that Maureen is just deluded by the significant loss in her life. It’s not an asset that I’ve spent so much time thinking about why the mythos of this film was so irritating, while in another recently watched film, I took it for granted that Michael Dougherty’s horror comedy Krampus contained a vengeful Germanic holiday demon.
The most frustrating aspect of Personal Shopper is that the concrete evidence of ghosts in the film doesn’t add anything compared to the alternative, in which Maureen entertains an absurd sentimental request at the cost of failing to distance herself from a life she hates. The insistence on ghosts’ existence is akin to fortune teller scenes in other films, another credulous trope I cannot abide. These kinds of things make people dumber instead of elevate them like Assayas’ previous films have done. Still, Stewart is so good that she makes Personal Shopper worth the frustration. At this point, she’s the female, late-20’s version of Nicolas Cage, another actor that everyone is sure is terrible when they’re in fact regularly capable of greatness. B-