Personal Shopper is definitely a festival film.
Atmosphere is just about everything in a horror film—get that right, and you can get away with a lot, although of course, it’s always nice if you have a good story and fine acting as well. Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper has two of the three: spooky atmosphere and a great performance by Kristen Stewart, while the story is a bit weak.
Maureen (Stewart) is a personal assistant to jet-setting model and all-around beautiful person (Nora von Waldstätten; it’s not clear what she does, but it involves wearing lots of expensive clothing and jewelry), for whom she not only shops, but also tends to more mundane matters like updating software. If you think that sounds like Stewart’s role in Clouds of Sils Maria, also directed by Assayas, you’re right, except that in Personal Shopper Stewart is playing the lead, and all the other roles are quite minor by comparison.
Stewart offers an intriguing portrait of a young woman in limbo. She continues to work at a job she hates because it allows her to stay in Paris. She wants to stay in Paris because she thinks it’s the best place to receive the sign she thinks her dead twin brother will send her (she visits his home several times hoping to receive such a sign). The brother was a “real” psychic, while she’s not at all sure she has any abilities in that department, and she’s also not sure that the sign she’s waiting for will ever arrive, but she’s also not willing to give up on it. No one likes to place their life on hold, but it’s particularly irksome to Maureen because she has the same heart defect that killed her brother, so she can’t be sure how much more life she has.
As far as Personal Shopper is concerned, the supernatural really exists. Besides the conventional movie apparitions, the film also incorporates a different kind of terror: anonymous text messages to Maureen’s phone by someone who seems to be tracking her every move. Besides the pleasures of being scared without being in any danger yourself, Personal Shopper offers the chance to vicariously visit the world of the super-rich, with all its minimalist furniture and beautiful people, with Maureen acting as the audience surrogate: She may be in that world, but she’s definitely not of it. She also has a secret—while she’s mostly repelled by all the glitz, she’s also drawn to it, sometimes trying on her boss’s clothes and sleeping in her luxurious apartment.
Personal Shopper is definitely a festival film—Assayas won Best Director at Cannes for it, and it also was screened at, among others, the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. My own critic’s organization, the Online Film Critics Society, gave it an award for the best non-U.S. release of 2016. On the other hand, Personal Shopper is also a member of that select club of films that have been booed at Cannes, putting it in the company of notables such as Taxi Driver and L’Argent. So this arthouse horror film is actually a bit like marmite—people either love it or hate it—and while I fall into the former category, anyone buying a ticket expecting to see a conventional horror movie will almost certainly fall into the latter. | Sarah Boslaugh