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France 2016
Directed by
Olivier Assayas
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Personal Shopper

Synopsis: Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), a young American based in Paris is a “personal shopper” for a fashion world celebrity. She’s also a psychic medium searching for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother,.

With Personal Shopper writer-director Olivier Assayas reworks his previous film, Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014) calling back Kristen Stewart from that film to once again play a young woman trapped in the shadows of brighter lights than her own, there an aging film actress, here a high-handed supermodel. Whereas the earlier film was a Bergman-esque drama of identity, this edition is a stylish pastiche that fails to join its narrative dots into a satisfying whole.

Roughly speaking, Personal Shopper is an exploration of the much-canvassed question of whether there is an after-life and, if so, can its denizens communicate with us. Whilst Assayas indeed gives us traditional genre motifs like ectoplasmic apparitions, doors opening unaided and glasses floating mid-air Bewitched-like, the bulk of the film is given over to Maureen’s self-doubts - about her job, her psychic powers and her life in general.

So far so good but to eke out the thin story there are extended sequences of Maureen zipping around Paris on her scooter (and hopping over to London as needed) picking up haute couture as well as fabulous jewellery from Cartier’s for her boss. As we only see her boss once (well, twice really but that’s another matter) and then in her trackie pants talking about endangered gorillas how this works in practice is not clear but it lets Assayas tart up his film with a lot of high-end fashion chic.

He also throws into the mix little artistic detours thanks to modern information technology and gets Maureen to Google the early 20th century Theosophically-influenced abstract painter Hilma af Klint, and the 19th century French writer Victor Hugo - the former reference comes to nothing, the latter, which even involves a costume recreation of a séance, feeds into the floating glass scenes.  We also get a seemingly interminable session of texting between Maureen and an “Unknown” interlocutor, Maureen trying on her boss’s threads and masturbating while Marlene Dietrich warbles 'Das Hobellied'  a Viennese popular song about death being the great leveller, on the soundtrack, and after more zipping around on her scooter, a murder and a trip to Oman. When in the final scene Maureen asks the ghost (or maybe not) of her brother: “Is it you or is it just me?” it is with a fatigue that is matched by our own.

If Assayas did one thing right it was getting Stewart to play the lead. Her down-to-earth, slightly moody tomboyishness is a refreshing relief from the run-of-the-mill screen female protagonist. Even so it’s not great acting – no matter what happens to Maureen, she seems quite unaffected or remarkably quick to re-compose herself and in offering herself as her character Stewart takes her androgynous appeal to its limit.   

So, one star for re-uniting us with Stewart and half a star for introducing us to Hilma af Klint.  Everything else is pretty much a waste of time. Even so, Assayas is a skilled film-maker and he at least alludes to some interesting ideas even if not developing them meaningfully, so let's give his film another half star for overall watchability.




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