Personal Shopper - Cannes Film Festival 2016 Review
Two films in Cannes’ main competition this year revolve around fashion: Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Both also verge on the fantastic-horror genre. The latter is said to feature vampires; in the former, it’s all about ghosts.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas was last in Cannes in 2014 with Clouds of Sils-Maria, which also starred Kristen Stewart. In Personal Shopper, Stewart is really riveting, and proves once and for all that she has graduated from her darker Twilight days. As such, it’s a pity that her great work is overcast by the film’s plot, a mumble jumble of different genres. The result is not unpleasant to watch - but it comes across as silly. The film was booed at its first presentation at the festival, perhaps not so much because it’s that bad, but rather because it’s too frivolous to seriously compete.
Its main character, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), is a medium: she believes that she can communicate with otherworldly presences. She also works as a personal shopper to demanding model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) in Paris, while desperately trying to make spiritual contact with her twin brother Lewis, who passed away in the city a few months ago. Lewis was persuaded that there was a life after death - Maureen isn’t so sure. She’s waiting for a sign to prove her wrong, but doesn’t know whether she ought to let go - or hang on and keep believing. In her search, she is helped by Lewis’ former girlfriend Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz).
While the ghost plot is intriguing, the manner in which it is presented comes across as a tad ridiculous, rather than an elegant metaphor for grief. Assayas shows the spirits with similar effects to that of a cheesy horror movie (think Scooby-Doo); there’s also a dramatic séance scene with turning tables; and floating glasses in mid-air. The silliness also takes a technological angle: Maureen may or may not be engaging in a text conversation with a phantom. She writes; ‘Are u alive or dead?’. And so, when the film’s dramatic high point takes place, the audience is more likely to giggle, rather than gasp.
Maureen’s grief has nothing to do with the fashion world. Her trips to luxury brands make for pretty scenes, but come across as completely unconnected to the rest of the story. Her boss has forbidden her to try on her outfits; she has an impulse to do so, but that too seems irrelevant. There’s also nudity (when Stewart does end up putting on Kyra’s clothes) that only seems to be there for its own sake. It doesn’t say much about the character, nor moves the story forward.
Assayas also throws in a crime sub-plot for good measure, which again doesn’t seem to belong to the film - other than serve as a red herring for Lewis’ signal. The dialogue surrounding this plotline is really awful: the way in which Maureen forgets to announce to her boyfriend that she’s witnessed a murder is like something out of a particularly dreadful airport novel.
Despite all this, Stewart gives what is likely the best performance of her career. That she manages to be moving among a plot so preposterous is a testament to the quality of her work. She conveys uncertainty, vulnerability and loss well, even when only supplied with sparse (and occasionally awful) dialogue.
Assayas flounders in his direction as well. Scenes are repetitive - there’s a lot of opening and closing doors and windows; of Stewart driving around on her motorbike. If it’s intentional, it isn’t obvious why. There’s also clumsiness surrounding technology - the numerous shots of Maureen texting or watching YouTube videos are tedious and their insertion not particularly inventive.
Olivier Assayas’ latest film is perplexing, though at least it has the advantage of not being dull. If you’re curious about what independent film looks like when it goes off the rails and the Kristenaissance, then Personal Shopper will be one for you.
Marion Koob is The Digital Fix’s Cinema Editor. She will be tweeting throughout the festival @marionkoob.