Olivier Assayas‘ Personal Shopper finally opens theatrically this Friday, almost ten months after jolting and dividing the Cannes Film Festival last May. It’s being shown tonight at LACMA with Assayas and Kristen Stewart sitting for a post-screening q & a. The excitement that I felt just after the Salle Debussy screening — a sensation I’ll never forget — will be semi-rekindled one last time, and then the movie will die like a mouse trying to cross the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour.
Yes, this brilliant fear-and-anxiety flick is going to perish faster than you can snap your fingers, which is all the more reason to see it immediately. Unless, of course, you couldn’t care less about theatrical submissions and would rather wait for streaming, in which case I say “go with God” or “go fuck yourself” — take your pick.
Either way Personal Shopper is irrefutably one of the most original and unsettling ghost flicks ever made and certainly the nerviest this century. This has been proven, in a sense, by the pooh-poohers and naysayers. There’s never been an important, game-changing piece of art that hasn’t been trashed in the early stages by milquetoasts and conservatives.
Personal Shopper‘s brilliance is partly about the fact that it’s not so much a “ghost story” as an antsy mood piece about…well, a whole jumble of ingredients but all of them drawn from the here and now. It’s more of an uptown cultural smorgasbord that’s seasoned with a ghostly current that you can take or leave, but it certainly doesn’t hinge on standard shock moments — cracked mirrors, moving furniture and all that.
Remember that Assayas won the Best Director prize last May, and that honors of this sort are never given out lightly.
If you like typical bullshit fast-food ghost movies…if you’re a Conjuring fan…if you like your goose bumps served with pickles, onions and extra cheese in a to-go wrapper then I sincerely hope you have a miserable time with Personal Shopper. The more I think about paying customers who are too stupid or rigid-minded to get it, the better I feel. But if you liked The Innocents and The Haunting, there’s hope for you.
An Australian critic wrote last summer that “I didn’t know that all I wanted in a movie was Kristen Stewart scootering around Paris buying expensive designer fashions for rich people while texting a ghost who may or may not be her dead twin brother.” See? He didn’t know what was coming but he got it all the same. I’ve scootered all over Paris for years on end, and watching this film for the first time…I’m not exaggerating…was simply one of the greatest summaries of that transcendent Paris scooterbuzz thing…it was heaven.
Help me, God…help me to return so I can once again use my wits and agility to dodge all that Paris traffic at night and feel like Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless.
Personal Shopper is partly about how urban life can feel at times, creepy and cold and yet exciting at the same time, but it’s also about the way it all felt in the fall of ’15 (i.e., when Personal Shopper was filming), and about the vibe when you were roaming around Paris or any big-league burgh and coping with that current and feeling varying shades of fluidity and flotation. It’s a darting, here-and-there thing, a fleeting experience about the flutterings and rattles of spirits around the corner. Or deep within. Or out in the ether.
Right now two-thirds of the critics are behind Personal Shopper (68% on Metacritic, 65% on Rotten Tomatoes), which means it’s likely to ring your bell on some level, but the general perception (helped along by IFC Films) is that it’s a bust.
Two reasons for this: (a) the douchenozzles who booed the ending at the end of the first Cannes showing (I was there — they weren’t booing the film itself) and (b) the critics who’ve ixnayed it since. This is a failure of engagement for which there’s simply no excuse. At the very least Personal Shopper deserves respect and applause for pushing boundaries and trying something a little different.
Some guy wrote last May that “it’s a must-see for anyone who wonders what it might look like if a cerebral French art-film director tried to make The Conjuring 3” — yes! Exactly! Love that aspect!
I don’t have the slightest doubt that Personal Shopper is a masterwork, and yet one-third of the critics out there — the same ones who’ve applauded the cheesy Conjuring movies as well as Get Out and fucking Moonlight — have pissed all over it.
An honest IMDB poster: “You don’t know where it’s going [at times]. I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life, but rarely one that is unsettling in a very subtle way like this one. I was never really sure what to expect from the movie, and at certain points it was quite unnerving and suspenseful and at the same time stressful, ha ha. Kristen Stewart delivers a great performance and really adds a lot to the mood, and you can really feel her psychological stress, especially in a very well done train sequence.”
“Personal Shopper is alternately a haunted-house movie, a psychological thriller, and a Bildungsroman about learning to accept grief. [Issues of] personal identity are matched by the film’s own loose boundaries [as the] narrative quickly collapses into a kind of fugue state…a train sequence about a series of increasingly threatening text messages even updates the slasher genre, modernizing the wry but sinister phone calls from Scream for the smartphone era.”
HE to Guy Lodge, Richard Lawson, Eric Kohn, Stephanie Zacharek, Peter Bradshaw, Robbie Collin, Tim Grierson, Jake Howell and others who were hugely impressed by Olivier Assayas‘ Personal Shopper: We were all knocked back when it played in Cannes five weeks ago, but a few too many critic friends have since told me “nope, not for me, didn’t care for it,” etc. And yet some of these same naysayers liked or even loved The Conjuring 2, which operates way, way below the level of Assayas’ film. And that, to me, is appalling.
All I can figure is that Personal Shopper is too antsy and schizo for some people. It’s too teasing and darting and inconclusive. It doesn’t behave like other ghost stories, and some just don’t know what to do with it. So they toss it and wash their hands.
Have any of you thought about the schism between admirers and dissers? What are your thoughts? What’s going on here?
There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind about how uniquely chilling and riveting this film is — it’s my second favorite film of the year after Manchester by the Sea — and how stunningly good Stewart’s performance is. And yet two or three days ago Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger of the Telluride Film Festival were both telling me how they didn’t care for it. C’mon!
I posted a short “Friends of Personal Shopper” piece in Cannes on 5.17, but here’s a more comprehensive rundown of the best raves:
“Personal Shopper is strange, frightening, and possessed of a dark ribbon of sadness that no champagne gulped down at a post-screening beach party could drown out. There are certain scenes — scored by ominous thuds and whispering wind — that are so frightening that they were, for this wimp, extraordinarily hard to watch. A horror movie with a matte, flat-faced demeanor [and] a grief drama with a shiver of sylphic humor, Personal Shopper is as cathartic as it is terrifying, as knowing and wise about the weirder mechanics of the grieving process as it is utterly confusing.” — Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair.
“It is actually Assayas’s best film for a long time, and Stewart’s best performance to date — she stars in a supernatural fashionista-stalker nightmare where the villain could yet be the heroine’s own spiteful id. Is it The Devil Wears Prada meets The Handmaiden (also in Cannes) with a touch of Single White Female?” — The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw.
“Personal Shopper is like a triple death jump without a safety net, one of the bravest and risk taking films that have ever been shown in Cannes.” — Carlos F. Heredero, Caimán Cuadernos de Cine.
“This is a measured, richly ambiguous work about the subjective process of grief — masquerading as a ghost story — that experiments with the minutiae of film language as only a master of the medium can do. [It’s] a cinephile’s idea of a horror movie, their headiest ingredients elevated to an abstract plane. The slick camerawork, slow-burn tension and mysterious circumstances have less to do with shock value than the interior processes behind it. Audiences unwilling to wrestle with this fascinating gamble demonstrate the worst fear plaguing moviegoing culture: Something different.” — Eric Kohn, Indiewire.
“Among the many things that appear to be on Assayas’s mind is the disembodied — and disembodying — nature of modern-day communication and social media, which makes ghosts of us all to those with whom we text far more than we talk. Perhaps no film has ever made the mobile phone quite such an instrument of tension: the on-screen iPhone ellipsis of an incoming message takes on a breath-halting urgency here. No more should be revealed about the film’s gliding, glassy sashay through multiple, splintered genres and levels of consciousness – except to say that Assayas, working in the high-concept, game-playing vein of his Irma Vep and demonlover, is in shivery control of it all.” — Guy Lodge, Time Out.
“Personal Shopper was booed not because it’s bad (it emphatically isn’t), but because it breaks lots of good-taste conventions in a way that’s deliberately designed to set your soul jangling. For one thing, it features explicit — and occasionally terrifying — supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror or fantasy film, and they’re presented without a smidge of insincerity or irony. For another, it elongates and teases when other films would accelerate and summarize. Stewart’s performance is detailed and considered yet shiveringly natural: it might even be the minor-key equal of her César-winning work in Clouds of Sils Maria.” — Robbie Collin, The Telegraph.
“Assayas taps a wellspring of thought on forms of communication [while drawing] parallels between 19th century drawing-room seances and Skype calls. In Personal Shopper, death is just another form of alienation, a physical remove from a person we once knew. Words themselves come under close scrutiny, and Assayas asks if we can ever truly connect with another person if we’re not standing right in front of them and communing fully with the senses. The incessant buzz of a smartphone becomes an attention-grabbing scream from out of the ether.” — Little White Lies’ David Jenkins.
“It’s a must-see for anyone who wonders what it might look like if a cerebral French art-film director tried to make The Conjuring 3…a film that’s attempting something singular. Which is preferable: a movie that’s consistently engrossing, but fails to stick the landing, or a movie that’s so-so for much of its duration, but delivers a conclusion that retroactively enriches everything that preceded it?” — Mike D’Angelo, A.V. Club.
“We’re not entirely sure of what to be scared of: a human stalker, a psychological disfiguration, an evil spirit or a kind one. Is the supernatural a consequence of Maureen’s instability, something metaphysical or a force that can’t be explained or identified? Honestly, I don’t think even the film knows. It allows the mysteries to sit there, to not make sense of anything and to allow the unease to simmer without fully defining what happens. This can be frustrating: it’s a mystery without a solution, a whodunit without a perpetrator. But this is cinema about faith and bolstered by it: we fear only what we can imagine, not what is seen. — Josh Cabrita, We Got This Covered.
“Assayas is working on a deeper, more metaphoric level, abandoning strict narrative cause-and-effect logic to give us fragments of Maureen’s life refracted through conflicting experiences. Nothing happens in this film as a direct result of what came before, which explains why the sudden appearance of suggestive, potentially dangerous text messages can be interpreted as a literal threat or as some strange cosmic manifestation of other, subtler anxieties.” — Tim Grierson, Paste magazine.
“Personal Shopper wrings the most out of every moment, which occasionally messes with the tonality of the film and the flow of a coherent narrative; is it a horror film or murder mystery or a coming-of-self drama? But Assayas and Stewart both exhibit masterful command in their grasp of twisty storytelling and full-bodied characterization; the joy is in deciphering their examination of an unsatisfying existential familiarity, presented in a most unfamiliar manner.” — Simon Foster, Screen-Space.