Film Review: "Personal Shopper" is a sleepy film that offers occasional thrills
Personal Shopper is the kind of film you'd catch halfway through the late night SBS rotation, watch with mild interest, and feel like you couldn't have missed that much by the time the credits rolled.
That's a roundabout way of saying that most of its first half consists of morose-looking actors walking through refrigerated Parisian streets and exchanging cryptic dialogue and watching things on YouTube. You hope to god that this will pay off later in some way, because it's sure as hell not that interesting to sit through. And indeed, while the latter half contains considerable menace and tension, it's also haphazard and confusing. Director Olivier Assayas has strung together three different sorts of movies, but none of them coheres thematically or narratively. The effect is something like three little children yanking at your shirt and competing for your attention. But he's got such excellent control over tone and mood that the film remains watchable, even during its roughest parts. And, running at a reasonable 1 hour and 40 minutes, it never overstays its welcome.
Personal Shopper follows Maureen (Kirsten Stewart), a celebrity assistant who's in the throes of a spiritual crisis. Her job seems to solely consist of picking out fancy clothes for her celebrity boss. The job is exactly cushy enough for her to live comfortably and exactly dull enough to feed her existential ennui. It's here that Personal Shopper plays to the dreary mumblecore crowd.
But she remains in Paris with the hope that she can commune with her dead brother, Lewis, who died in the creepy looking mansion they both grew up in. Okay, so now Personal Shopper is a B movie ghost story not unlike Paranormal Activity. The scenes where she attempts to speak to him are both unnerving and goofy – exhibit A that though this film is odd and broken, it's far from terrible.
So when she receives mysterious text messages from some creep, she feels compelled to respond and play along with his strange demands. To their credit, Assayas and Stewart are able to wring some real tension from what is essentially someone staring at their phone. So then for about 30 minutes, Personal Shopper sheds both its arthouse and B-movie affectations to become a conventional paranoid thriller.
It's not that a film can only be one of those things – be it arthouse drama, ghost story, or Hitchcockian thriller – it's that Personal Shopper never integrates these three things meaningfully, and as a result Personal Shopper is an absent-minded average film that nonetheless manages to occasionally jolt the heart exactly because large stretches of it are, putting mildly, sedate. So in a weird way, its flaws prove to be a boon for its thrills. It's too bad that its thrills are scarce.