It may not be entirely fair to call French director Olivier Assayas, who has delivered some of the most thrilling as well as some of the most bewildering film of the past few decades, wildly inconsistent. There is always, at least, a baseline of artfulness in his work that suggests a control and purpose at odds with wildness; perhaps willfully inconsistent may be the more apt description, paradoxical as it may seem. And if that is the benchmark of his craft, then Personal Shopper may be his masterpiece.
The critical reaction certainly seems to suggest that it’s a triumph of sorts; it’s been very highly praised by most American film critics, and it’s being hailed as a breakout role for its star. The feeling isn’t universal, though; European critics have been quite a bit more critical, and it’s definitely in the camp of Assayas’ more divisive works. Its reception at Cannes is probably the most indicative of the split in attitude: at its debut screening, it was heartily jeered by the crowd, but at its official premiere, it received a lengthy standing ovation. So who’s right?
Personal Shopper is, to be generous, a bit of a mess. It stars Kristen Stewart (also featured in his previous, and very divisive, film Clouds of Sils Maria, and those who find her hard to take will encounter a real deal-breaker here. She’s featured in nearly every frame of the two-hour run time, and her inability to portray recognizable human reactions may have evolved, but it hasn’t gone away. Stewart plays Maureen, the personal shopper of the title, who is employed by a temperamental celebrity to fetch clothes, run errands, and do other odd jobs; she hates both the work and the boss, but she sticks around so she can engage in the other major plot thread of the film: she is a psychic medium, and in attempting to determine whether the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother has survived death and can send her messages from the afterworld.
Taken separately, either of these might have made for a fascinating movie: the frustrations of an intelligent and talented but directionless young woman who travels amongst the global elite, or the quest of a psychically sensitive but damaged person to prove that there is life beyond life. But thrown together in this way, they never manage to cohere, and quite frequently clash. They also drag in subplots (an interminable movie-within-a-movie about spirit-rapping, and the work of Swedish artist/spiritualist Hilda af Klint) that lead nowhere – more dead fish than red herrings. It’s not that Personal Shopper never takes a turn; it takes too many of them, but none of them lead anywhere productive. In this mode, Assayas resembles the Paul Thomas Anderson of the 1990s: loads of good ideas, but no sense of how to separate them into coherent strands. And at least Anderson kept things moving with palpable energy, while Assayas subjects us to a half-hour sequences of close-ups of text messages.
Any ghost story is going to flirt with ridiculousness, but in Personal Shopper the flirtation edges dangerously close to a full-blown romance. It’s not until the final scene that things resolve themselves, and when it happens, it still doesn’t make a lot of sense: the message received stands in stark contradiction of what we’ve seen before, and the ultimate sensation is that of a movie that is deeply ambiguous, but isn’t entirely sure of what it’s being ambiguous about. There’s nothing wrong with a film that zigs when you think it’s going to zag, but the changes in direction here don’t end up anywhere satisfying. Exposition without payoff, tension without suspense, and eroticism without interaction could all work separately, but in combination, it’s just too much all over the map to conclude successfully.
Even Personal Shopper’s virtues are riddled with vices. Stewart has unquestionably grown as an actress since her debut in the Twilight series, but she still has trouble conveying understandable emotions; Maureen seems to project frustration rather than alienation and peevishness rather than despair. There are a handful of genuinely creepy and frightening moments, but they don’t tie into one another in a meaningful way. Assayas’ film work (aided by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux) is as beautiful as ever, but it’s got a familiarity we can recognize in even his own most recent works. And for all his radical background, Assayas seems a little too in love with the decadent Euro-celebrity trappings he portrays. (This leads to some odd plot mechanics, as well; it’s not clear why Maureen, whose parents are dead and whose late brother lived in a huge mansion in the French countryside, needs to work for peanuts running errands for a bitchy fashion model she despises.)
Still, there are moments that remind you of what an electrifying talent Assayas can be. His work has real scope and depth, and there’s no end to the little details that keep you watching every scene. The text message sequence isn’t bad for what it is, but rather how it plays out; in the hands of a director with a better understanding of suspense, it could have been stunning. The background narrative, even when it doesn’t lead anywhere, is beautifully crafted, and the moments of terror, when they finally come, are strikingly effective even though they don’t take us anywhere afterwards. And there are rhythms and patterns in the film’s pace that remind us of why we keep returning to the director’s work. Even the bits that fizzle the most – the air of menace that never entirely coalesces, and the unfocused eroticism – are disappointing because they lack payoff, not because Assayas isn’t skilled at making us feel them.
All told, Personal Shopper is a film with lots of time and talent behind it, but which comes across as something that could have used a lot more time in the oven. The good news is that, with Olivier Assayas, you have the cinematic equivalent of a city bus: if you can’t get on the last one, just wait around a bit and a better one will come along.