“r u alive or dead?” That’s Personal Shopper‘s chief question. And if ur alive, how do u know? Kristen Stewart’s Maureen texts the question to an unknown number harassing her. The guy/girl on the other end says it wants her. Not physically, but it will have her. Maureen believes there’s actually a ghost in the machine. She’s been hired by a family to divine the nature of the spirit haunting their house. Is it Maureen’s recently deceased twin, Lewis, or someone more sinister? She doesn’t know, but she’s sufficiently wired and angry at her life choices to start listening when the “ghost” starts playing games with her via text message. At its instruction, she goes to Paris hotel rooms with instructions to try on the fancy clothes she buys for a vain actress, her livelihood when she isn’t an amateur medium. The usual questions apply: is the ghost real? What does it want? Is Maureen going to uncover the mystery before she goes mad?
Personal Shopper‘s writer/director Olivier Assayas is too smart for his own good. The critic-turned-filmmaker’s unblinking eye views his obsessions through über trendy narrative sunglasses, figuring out his relationship to art and politics by watching Maggie Cheung, Asia Argento, Edgar Ramírez, Clément Métayer, Juliet Binoche, Mathieu Amalric and Kristen Stewart pass through halls of mirrors. Over here a surrogate is caught between two women who represent his dueling love for revolution and art. Over there a techno-thriller where three of the most beautiful women in the world glide past various screens while Sonic Youth thrashes on the soundtrack. He has an intimate relationship to all things hip, because they define his films and his films frequently define them in return. Watching his movies can be like getting a crash course in eighteen different moments in pop history that would have changed more lives if only anyone had been paying attention. Assayas wants you to pay attention. Maybe a little too much. He widens his frame, closes the mise-en-scène and hangs back to let all the details wash over you while his characters float from one space to another, lost in their own thoughts, drifting towards the future.
This approach is understandable when all you want is to make audiences think about obscure Swedish painters or better appreciate a Wire song. If your aim is emotional investment, and it appears to be, letting needle drops do the talking always doesn’t cut it. Maureen is a tough nut to crack, even for an Assayas heroine. Her sunken, pale eyes and trembling hands clutching a cigarette like an inhaler, those things externalize her state of mind, but not the longing she’s plainly suffering. Assayas wants us to see Maureen as just as much a ghost as the puking wispy shroud in the haunted chateau. All well and good but Stewart at no point imparts emotional stakes into the un-covering of the central mystery, and can’t find enough of the character to stop her usual self-conscious twitching. If her brother is the lynchpin to her journey, it would have helped to know a single thing about him. With no insight into their relationship and no feeling for whether she enjoys her life as an American medium in Paris, the metaphysical twinning just sits there like those fancy sequined gowns Stewart throws on. When you start and end a stuttering, nicotine-stained wreck ready to accept anything, how much weight could any thing in the middle carry? When you believe in ghosts so fervently you get impatient waiting for them to give you signs in a dark house, that doesn’t leave much room for development. That issue is exacerbated by the film’s resolute staidness. If you’re on Personal Shopper‘s wavelength by the midway point, you’ll be fine with the interlude in which a ghost (who is… invisible, just, so we’re all on the same page) walks down a hotel corridor, gets in an elevator, then walks through two automatic doors onto the streets of Paris. If not, then steel yourself, there’s still twenty minutes left.
After the laid-back introductory passages and the sexy momentum of the second act, where it’s absolutely thrilling to watch Stewart grow more confident as she wears the clothes of her master, Assays puts it all on red. The loose ends more or less bow-tied, Maureen meets the guy dating Lewis’s widow. The pair have a grammatically dubious conversation about grief that spells out the film’s themes with the subtlety and grace of a Neil Breen character. And then something happens that requires breaking the fourth wall of this review. Assayas makes a ghost manifest in such a heart-stoppingly goofy way that if I hadn’t stuffed a corner of my jacket into my mouth, I would have burst into hysterics and spoiled the finale for a packed house. Now… there’s precedent to this sort of trick; look at Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician for instance, which gets something of a shout out in a fake TV movie Stewart watches on her iPhone. It’s perfectly understandable that this most exposed mode in which Assayas is operating (Stewart’s frequent disrobing mirrors his own stripping of his usual stylistic wardrobe) would require a final gesture that can only be this obvious, this monochromatic, this absolutely silly. And as much good will as Personal Shopper had built up now had to be weighed against these preposterous final minutes. And to what ends? No one could possibly be in doubt that the movie believes in ghosts. We watched one cack up ectoplasm on Maureen in Act 2. Every time I see an Assayas film, I want it to be the one where he penetrates his self-imposed emotional remoteness, the one where the drama is as supercharged and sensual as his song choices. Personal Shopper comes close enough that I’ll remember its erotic highs more sharply than its sadistically earnest lows, but once you’ve had to pull a jacket out of your own mouth like a drunken magician, you and a movie are never going to look each other in the eye. In short, dead.