It’s been an unusually good year or so for divisive high fashion art house Euro horror. With both Personal Shopper and The Neon Demon I suspect we’re either on the verge of a very unexpected new trend, or that we just happened to chance upon one weird-ass coincidence.
Not that the two films are particularly similar, aside from all the obvious similarities. Nicolas Winding Refn’s sadistic takedown of fleshy superficiality is as glamorous and brassy a motion picture as they come, but Olivier Assayas has something more intimate on his mind with Personal Shopper. His film isn’t about a supermodel, but the relatively normal woman who buys all of a supermodel’s accessories and fancy dresses, because said supermodel is just too busy. Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a woman on the outside of couture, looking in, and feeling just jealous enough to possibly do something creepy about it.
She’s also a medium, did I mention that? Personal Shopper takes place in a world where our heroine believes in ghosts, and sees them outright, and yet that may or may not be completely incidental. At the start of our story, Maureen is still reeling from the recent death of her twin brother, from a heart defect that she suffers from as well, and she is eagerly trying to reach him on the other side of the veil. But her pursuit has some very unexpected payoffs, and leads her into a bizarre game of cat and mouse with a mysterious stranger who could be her dead brother, who could be a creepy stalker, or who could even be a serial killer for all she knows.
Personal Shopper belongs in the horror genre, that much is certain, but it’s not particularly violent, it’s not especially lurid, and it only frightens at a few, key moments. Olivier Assayas has written a film that has more to do with the anxieties and dissatisfactions that fuel of our obsessions, and the real fears at the heart of all the superficial fears that we usually complain about. At one point, the mysterious stranger grills Maureen about what truly unsettles her, and she says horror movies do, because they focus on women being stalked and victimized. What she’s really afraid of, the person/entity points out to her, is the emotion of fear.
Still, there’s “deliberately paced” and then there’s “pushing your luck,” and Personal Shopper tiptoes over that line a little too often for its own good. When the film’s plot finally kicks in, and Maureen finally experiences her own sorts of fears, the film’s languid pace becomes a hindrance. It may be a mystery but it’s not an altogether complicated one, and the amount of free time Assayas gives his audience is more than enough to piece the puzzle together long, long, long before Maureen does.
Fortunately, Personal Shopper is not about its plot. It’s about our troublesome tendency to make death all about ourselves, and to ascribe deeper, sometimes horrible meanings to events that may or may not have anything to do with what we think they represent. It’s a textured perspective on the horror genre, matched beautifully by Kristen Stewart, who gives an astounding performance as a woman who’s not quite sure how badly she’s been torn apart. Watching her try to sew herself back together anyway is captivating.
[Editor’s Note: This review was previously published during the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. Personal Shopper opens in theaters this weekend.]
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.