Personal Shopper

In my mind, there is now a category of films called “French films that are meandering and don’t leave you with any immediate payoff, but are resonant and make an emotional impression that lingers for days,” and this is one of those films. And, by now, I’ll see anything by Olivier Assayas.

In this one, Kristen Stewart is an American living in Paris, working as a personal shopper for a famous actress. The film starts with her staying overnight in a creaky old house. We then see her going about her day, picking up clothes for the actress and delivering them to somewhere she will be, including the actresses’ apartment. She is forbidden from ever trying on the actresses’ clothes, and if she does the actress becomes enraged and returns the items. She claims to be a medium, open to communication from spirits. She has a boyfriend who is currently in Morocco, and wants her to come be with him, whom she communicates with over Skype. People ask her what she is still doing in Paris, since she seems to be spinning her wheels there. Then, a little ways in, she explains that her twin brother, who had a heart condition that she also has, recently died, and she is waiting for a sign from him. They made a promise to each other that whichever of them died first would try to contact the other after death. And we all know what poor communicators ghosts in movies turn out to be.

When she says that, it becomes clear what the movie is about: she’s an aimless, lost woman at a crossroads in her life and at sea about what to do or where to go. She’s just hanging around in a foreign country, in a dead-end job, with no real friends or present emotional connections, waiting for a sign from somewhere that will make sense of it all and give her meaning. Then you start to see that the rest of the movie is constructed to demonstrate that she has little identity of her own; she spends her day constructing an image for someone else, someone who never talks to her, and who forbids her to step into any of the clothes she spends her day gathering. Her boyfriend is gone and she has no real friends, except her brother’s widow, who is starting to date other people and move on, in a way that Stewart’s character can’t yet. When she does get one little sign, small but definite, she agonizingly says: “That’s it? I need something more.”

There is a long and patience-trying text message conversation with someone who never reveals themselves, but when it’s over [and one is out of the irritation] it underscores that she has no one to confide in, and ends up confiding in someone anonymous. There is also a visitation from an angry female spirit which is one of the scariest ghost moments of any film, horror or not.

There ending is… ripe for interpretation, but by then the general impression has been gotten across, and I don’t think it’s really the point anyway. A slow, sad, haunting movie that anyone who has felt stranded and directionless in life will be able to relate to and be moved by.

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7 thoughts on “Personal Shopper

  1. Kristen Stewart seems to be on a roll these last few years (or simply she’s very good at picking interesting roles and I had got the wrong impression of her because of Twilight). Anyway this definitely sounds like something I’d like to see. Also I’m going to take the chance to recommend to you again another French film, Raw. I’m sorry to be repetitive and annoying, but I’m sure you’re going to find it really interesting and I’d just love to read whatever you have to say about it, Scott! I guess it’s very different from this one in tone and intentions, but it definitely kept me thinking about it days afterwards, and recalling specific scenes and story elements and piecing them together.

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  2. I like your point about the emerging French genre of “meandering without payoff”. This certainly is a divisive film. Great review even though I cannot share your conclusions. In place of a cohesive narrative, we have ambiguity elevated as an artform in itself. The tired old floating veils, self-levitating objects, and creaky floorboards show little originality; the only fresh contribution to the genre is the iPhone as a ghostly medium. But you are absolutely right about Stewart being outstanding.

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    • Hmmm. Well, I would say in this case, ambiguity is somewhat the point, and the intent to leave us to make our own conclusions and get what we will out of it, which doesn’t bother me, but I can see where it would come off to some like there’s no point.

      I also didn’t mean to imply the “meandering” genre is NEW in French films!

      As for the creaky floorboards, etc., I often wonder what a director SHOULD do with a ghost story… have we exhausted all ways to express ghosts? Because almost every way to express them is pretty tired and used up by now. So I didn’t mind that this movie used the tried-and-true methods [which I thought worked].

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      • If you did not mean to imply it, then I do. Its a charming characteristic of French films to meander, and the film Things to Come (reviewed at mine) is an example. You make a good point about alternative tropes; I’m sure there are many that are grounded in realism that can evoke contact with the afterlife in frightening ways. Whether the old-fashioned tropes work is in the eye of the beholder. Nice chatt’n.

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