Cannes Film Review: ‘Personal Shopper’

'Personal Shopper' Review - Cannes Film

After winning a Cesar for 'Clouds of Sils Maria,' Kristen Stewart reteams with director Olivier Assayas to play yet another beleaguered celebrity slave.

There’s a certain perverse genius to unveiling a ghost movie at Cannes that relies on the audience to deliver the “boos” as the final credits roll, although one doubts that’s quite what Olivier Assayas was going for with his peculiar “Personal Shopper.” The wildly unconventional study of a young American woman going through a spiritual crisis — in more ways than one — this reunion between Kristen Stewart and the director who gave her one of her best-ever roles in 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a broken, but never boring mix of spine-tingling horror story, dreary workplace drama and elliptical identity search, likely to go down as one of the most divisive films of Stewart’s career.

Apart from a handful of ultra-violent slasher movies (such as “High Tension” and “Them”), contemporary French cinema seldom ventures into the realm of horror. Not that ultra-cinema-savvy critic-turned-helmer Assayas seems particularly worried about such traditions. “Personal Shopper” bears about as much in common with any other ghost movie you may have seen as the director’s now-20-year-old “Irma Vep” does classic vampire movies (which was sort of the point, centering on a remake of silent classic “Les Vampires”). Assayas’ flip dismissal of basic genre-movie standards will surely confuse younger viewers seeking relatively conventional thrills, especially those who tune in because they heard the “Twilight” star takes her top off (although that particular selling point didn’t exactly work for “On the Road” either). For more discerning grown-ups, however, there’s certainly enough here to haunt — often in ways that have more to do with subtext and psychology than the computer-generated ghost that surfaces in the movie’s scarier scenes.

At first glance, Stewart’s character, Maureen Cartwright, seems to be cut from the same cloth as the celebrity assistant she played in “Sils Maria.” In that film, part of the fun was getting to watch one of Hollywood’s most famous young stars play-acting the stress of having to juggle menial chores for her demanding diva boss. Still, while Maureen belongs to the same system of disposable satellites drawn into the orbit of needy tabloid idols, her job couldn’t be more different. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Paris with a better gig as we watch Maureen ride her motorcycle from one haute couture designer’s atelier to the next, picking out gowns for single-name star Kyra to wear — the only rule being that she’s not allowed to try them on herself. While being a personal shopper offers little in the way of personal satisfaction, the work is so cushy that it actually leaves time for Maureen to moonlight as a medium, which is where things tend to get really weird.

In the opening scene, Maureen arrives at a big empty mansion to hold a séance, and though she doesn’t spot the menacing specter hovering in the corner of the living room, Assayas ensures that we do. It will take some time before the movie gets around to revealing what Maureen was doing in that house — although it never bothers to explain what she, an American, is doing in Paris. Turns out, her twin brother, Lewis, also lived in France. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he died in France, which hasn’t been an easy thing for Maureen to accept. They both had weak hearts, and the deal was, whoever died first would send the other a sign from the other side, so she — and we — spend the movie waiting for just such a message. And because Assayas has already indicated that ghosts are not only real, but potentially malevolent, that creates real suspense.

The message arrives, as messages tend to do, via cell phone during an already harried go-fer run to London. Considering that Maureen will spend the better part of 20 minutes texting with an unknown (and potentially undead) caller, it’s kind of a clever conceit that she spends the conversation juggling her most glamorous assignment. But it’s also a bummer that Stewart has to act so much of the movie on her lonesome, avoiding calls from her long-distance boyfriend and doing research via YouTube (where she watches videos about abstract painter Hilma af Klimt and French novelist Victor Hugo, who both communed with the beyond). Stewart is a terrific actress, her brittle exterior barely masking whatever tempest she or her characters are battling underneath, and here, the unpredictability of what she may do next is heightened by the fact that there are no rules for what can happen.

Soon, Maureen is taking orders from the mysterious presence on the other end of her cell phone, who starts to feed her lines not that far from those of the postmodern serial killer in “Scream.” (Yes, she likes scary movies.) Whoever it is leaves a key for her to a hotel room, encouraging Maureen to test her phobias, which evidently involve trying on Kyra’s clothes and then masturbating in her boss’s bed. Maureen not-so-secretly despises her boss, though her feelings on this — like those involving her dead brother, or toward the fashion industry in which she’s made so many high-ranking connections — are only partly articulated.

Though the film is told in strictly chronological order, making sense of it feels like trying to reassemble a broken mirror. Losing Lewis really messed up Maureen, and in her meaningless job as a celebrity slave, she’s starting to lose herself as well. She could quit, though Assayas comes up with a far more surprising way to liberate Maureen of her employment duties, whisking her away to faraway Oman, for a scene that’s as disembodied from the rest of the film as the Iraq-set opening of “The Exorcist” feels from all the reality-grounded horror that follows. (Stewart’s first of two topless scenes, in which she goes in for a heart sonogram, could be a nod to the far-grimmer carotid angiography Regan endures in that film.) Between this and “Sils Maria,” Stewart has suffered enough for imaginary stars, we can only hope she goes easy on her own assistants.

Cannes Film Review: 'Personal Shopper'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2016. Running time: MIN.

Production

(France) A CG Cinéma, Vortex Sutra, Sirena Film, Detail Films, Arte France Cinéma, Arte Deutschland/WDR production, with the participation of Arte France, Arte Deutschland/WDR, with the support of the Czech Tax Rebate, the Czech Minority Coproduction Fund, the Tax Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government via Scope Invest. (International sales: MK2 Films, Paris.) Produced by Charles Gillibert. Executive producer, Sylvie Barthet. Co-producers, Artemio Benki, Fabian Gasmia.

Crew

Directed by Olivier Assayas. Screenplay, Assayas, Christelle Meaux. Camera (color, widescreen), Yorick Le Saux; editor, Marion Monnier; production designer, François-Renaud Labarthe; costume designer, Jürgen Doering; sound, Nicolas Cantin, Nicolas Moreau, Olivier Goinard; assistant director, Dominique Delany; casting, Antoinette Boulat.

With

Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graïa, Nora Von Waldstätten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet, Pascal Rambert.

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  1. Scott F. says:

    I have to admit I was disappointed by this film. I always have high hopes for Assayas projects (“Something in the Air” still haunts me). In “Clouds of Sils Maria” the bulk of the acting was carried on the substantial shoulders of Juliette Binoche, in “Personal Shopper” I felt that Kristen Stewart was somewhat in over her head, as far as carrying the film. Maybe its not her fault, I’ve seen her quite effective in other roles, but in this case I found her performance mannered and rather forced. The film isn’t terrible, and it certainly didn’t deserve the boos it received at Cannes, but on the whole it felt insubstantial and unfocused, unlike most of Assayas’ work. I’m still looking forward to whatever Assayas comes up with next, I consider him an important director – maybe his next project should feature french actors.

  2. Maggie says:

    How the hell does Rottem Tomatoes call this a positive review – especially when the critic’s own tweet link has the word “lame” in the lead ? Mr. DeBruge
    may want to clarify that – RT is really misrepresenting his intent.

  3. None says:

    Boring pretentious drama from a French director nobody in America knows. Hey, at least K. Stew is dodging Razzies. The box office will not be enough to mention.

    Cannes has really been a dud this year. Not one thing that looks like a hit or Oscar bait. Money Monster had the flashy premiere and still flopped. The Nice Guys won’t fare any better. The indies are even more doomed. TIFF has become the prestigious one while Cannes is where uncommercial crap resides.

    • Justine 13 says:

      Beautiful comment ” from a French director nobody in America knows!(sic!)”. Well, well if you are interested in films at the Cannes Film Festival I´m sorry to say that you have to get used to that, n´est ce pas? This is a world class film festival, films from all over the world. With names that you will never learn or pronounce. With fantastic films that you can never see in America, because the film audience over there are ignorant and only interested in their own productions. Sad…

    • your face says:

      You are awful

  4. JEREMY says:

    Reviews like this are the type that motivate you to go see the movie anyway,just to flip the bird to the critics.
    The only two film critics I truly admired are no longer with us.

    GENE SISKEL & ROGER EBERT.

    The game has changed big time since they’ve been gone.

  5. Guest says:

    That was a tedious review whose negative focus left no survivors. Your prejudice may be showing a tad. I’ll see the movie. Couldn’t be any more boring than your review.

  6. Kevin says:

    Sounds awful.

  7. Jimmy Green says:

    didn’t know the film ran that many minutes

  8. Rain says:

    was curious what Variety would say about this movie since you made up the false story about Ms Stewart recently and had to make an apology. happy you think Ms. Stewart is a good actress because she is…too bad you apparently zoned out while watching the movie because that Oman scene you mentioned couldn’t be more “disembodied” than this review.

  9. Sansa says:

    Can’t wait!

  10. SMS says:

    Why are you wasting our time with a half written review?!? That just shows disrespect for Variety readers as if our time has no value. It’s insulting.

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