Such is the delicate balance being walked in Olivier Assayas' ghost story/haute couture drama Personal Shopper that it's understandable why Cannes found it so divisive. The film was booed after its world premiere, which was then followed by a standing ovation, and frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if they were the same people doing both. Because Personal Shopper is, at the bare minimum, a handful of different movies at one time and maybe half of them work extremely well, while the rest are almost laughably horrible. The one thing that stands out no matter what is star Kristen Stewart, who proves yet again why she is one of Hollywood's most reliably appealing actresses and someone who never shies away from a challenging role.
Perfectly set in Paris where old world architecture and a rich history blends with modern technology and high fashion, the film finds Stewart as Maureen Cartwright, a medium who works as a personal shopper for an A-list celebrity who is too busy to do it herself. Maureen has been in mourning since the death of her brother, Lewis, a sufferer of the same heart defect she suffers from. Wait...a medium? Like, as in speaks with spirits? Yeah, Maureen has been "waiting" in her brother's creepy former home in hopes of a sign from him, and in these scenes it's as if Assayas is trying to create his own version of The Conjuring. The horror-esque elements, which find Maureen stalking through darkened, chilly corridors, and highly effective and would have made for a solid movie. But Assayas doesn't really have that in mind. Or, he just has too much on his mind.
Things get unnecessarily complicated and a tad silly when Maureen starts getting text messages from an unknown sender. He not only appears to have a constant watch on her, knowing where she is at all times, he's deeply intuitive about her tortured emotional state. Why does she keep answering him for LOOOOONG stretches of the film? Because of what is "forbidden", and that also explains her desire to try on her employer's expensive, high-end clothes. But who is sending these texts? The suggestion, one that Maureen desperately hopes for, is that it's Lewis who has apparently learned to use an IPhone in the afterworld. It's a ridiculous assertion, but Stewart's desperation, fueled by a little bit of fear, is genuine enough that we're willing to roll with it.
Stewart turns out to be the most stable aspect of a film that is equal parts classy and trashy. She's particularly good when expressing Maureen's grief over her brother's loss, but also her guilt at not fully believing in the spirit world as he did. This is despite the pact they made to contact each other upon one's death. In her second film with Assayas after the acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is comfortable with everything the director throws at her. Her status as something of a Hollywood misfit works well as Maureen walks among, but not necessarily with, the glamorous elite. Maureen is a woman stuck in neutral, with no idea where to go or who to be. It's no wonder she literally wants to walk in someone else's shoes from time to time, even if she's not allowed to. Some of the film's best moments come as Maureen goes through her daily routine as a personal shopper, spending thousands of dollars on items the rest of us can only dream at getting near. An entire movie about the life of a personal shopper, which has to be both amazing and somewhat limiting, could have been fascinating. Again, Assayas doesn't seem interested.
Assayas tosses in a completely illogical murder mystery plot that adds nothing, says nothing, and is too thin for how long it drags on. There's a sense that Assayas realizes how meaningless it is because of the way things wrap up almost with a scoff. Or maybe that's his point? There's a long stretch in which Maureen is fascinated by the abstract art of Hilma af Klimt, and Personal Shopper could probably be described as a cinematic abstraction, keeping one foot in the paranormal and the other in reality. That doesn't necessarily make for a complete film, and Assayas doesn't always seem to know where he wants to go, but he's fortunate to have Stewart as his emotional guide and creative muse.
Rating: 3 out of 5