Culture House Daily

Assayas’ Personal Shopper is slick, unnecessarily complex and totally irrelevant

16 March 2017

4:18 PM

16 March 2017

4:18 PM

Creaking doors, rustling leaves and leaky taps make up the soundtrack of Olivier Assayas’ improbable horror film Personal Shopper. But the most unnerving (and grating) sound in this supernatural fashion show are the iMessage alerts that may or may not be coming from the beyond. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because, like so much else in this baffling film, it is.

Assayas has made some excellent films over the past two decades and more, and I think his nosedive with Personal Shopper can be explained by his latest muse, Kristen Stewart.

Sure, she’s pretty – if that emaciated-junkie look turns you on. But why the former Twilight star has turned Assayas’ head is simply beyond me. Sure, her delivery is excellent in a slightly stoned, lackadaisical kind of way. Asking anything more of her, though, is stepping into hot water – in this case, hot water coming from a bath tap turned on by a phantom. True to the film’s title, Stewart plays a much put-on assistant to a mega-bitchy supermodel in Paris. She also moonlights as a spiritualist and sticks around Paris in hopes of establishing contact with her dead twin brother. As she somberly informs a friend: ‘I’m a medium. He was a medium.’ The brother recently died of a congenital heart condition that Stewart’s character, Maureen, also has. In light of this, one of the scariest things about Personal Shopper is how much Maureen smokes.


Maureen’s techie boyfriend keeps Skyping to get her to join him in Oman. Maureen keeps circling Paris on her scooter and catches the odd train to London picking up dresses, jewelry and dangerously high heels for her monstrous employer. And things keep going bump in the night in the old house where Maureen senses her brother’s presence. There are some effectively spooky scenes of ghost hunting, but our mounting terror turns to mirth whenever the unknown specter is sighted, hovering in the air like something out of Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners or Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Assayas developed the project around Stewart, who has plenty of opportunity to bare her breasts and masturbate in haute couture, which is clearly what girls do in their spare time, no? The film’s near-pornographic adoration of the actress, combined with its confused and unclassifiable plot (fashion satire? Psychosexual drama? Ghost story?) ultimately makes for a bumpy ride.

The best thing about Personal Shopper is the ten minutes that Lars Eidinger is in. Like Stewart, the brooding German actor was part of the ensemble of Assayas’ previous (and much better) Cannes-bound feature Clouds of Sils Maria. Here he has a small but crucial role as a creepy fashion editor. His one conversation with Maureen, while Kyra is throwing a hissy fit, is quietly unsettling and far more effectively conjures an atmosphere of dread than all of Assayas’ other hocus-pocus. But if the director wants us to be in suspense, he reveals too much by giving the role to Eidinger.

Ultimately, Personal Shopper feels like one of Kyra’s complicated fashion contraptions: slick, unnecessarily complex and totally irrelevant. Also the English dialogue could have used an editor. In recounting her first encounter with the ghost, Maureen somberly explains, ‘She vomited this ectoplasm and left.’ If only the audience was that lucky.

A.J. Goldmann writes about European arts and culture for the Wall Street Journal, Opera News and the Forward

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