This dark and somewhat gloomy offering from director Olivier Assayas, chronicles the misfortunes of Maureen (Kristen Stewart) a young woman based in Paris who is the personal shopper for super-successful (and barely glimpsed) fashionista, Kyra (Nora Van Waldstatten). Maureen’s life is an unrewarding succession of shopping expeditions for fancy clothing and footwear that she’s forbidden from trying on herself, even though she’s been chosen for this role because she’s exactly the same size as Kyra.
Maureen is also a medium, desperately trying to get in touch with her twin brother, Lewis, who died a year ago and who suffered from the same congenital heart condition as her. The opening sequence, slow and wordless, has Maureen wandering around a deserted mansion in the dark, listening to various bumps and whispers, a scene which leads us to believe that we are in for a traditional ghost story; but, half way in, the film switches abruptly into murder mystery territory and from there just seems to be become increasingly bewildering.
This is a shame because Stewart’s performance, as a downtrodden, scruffy girl next door, is rather good, a million miles away from her familiar Twilight persona. She skilfully portrays a character who is repressing her inner demons and who suffers from a crippling inability to assert herself. Sadly the story she’s starring in is rather less assured. Assayas seems to be riffing on the parallels between contemporary communication – texts, Skype calls, emails – and the world of the supernatural, but he doesn’t try very hard to inform the average viewer, leaving us to guess at his intentions. Long passages have characters speaking in French – and other languages – without the aid of subtitles. Worse still, the all important conclusion to the murder mystery element happens off screen, neatly destroying any suspense that might have been generated through the series of threatening text messages that Maureen receives throughout the story. Finally, the films denouement is so obfuscated, I spent hours afterwards trying to work out exactly what had happened.
Some reviewers have praised the film’s refusal to ‘pin things down,’ but the elephant in the room here is that this is surely an example of poor storytelling. I’m all for allowing viewers to make their own minds up as to what the director was trying to ‘say,’ but it surely helps to give us something concrete to build our theories on. In the end, Personal Shopper is neither fish nor fowl – it’s not the affecting ghost story it might have been and neither is it a satisfying thriller. Instead, it exists in a nebulous world somewhere between the two.