I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Bill Graham // Film Critic
There’s a mood to PERSONAL SHOPPER that is both somber and curious, which elevates a twisting narrative more interested in the affects of death and mourning than the supernatural. Director Olivier Assayas returns with his current muse, Kristen Stewart, as the lost soul searching for meaning after her twin brother has recently passed away.
To pay rent she helps run errands and deliver extremely expensive clothing and accessories for a well-to-do fashion icon in Paris. It doesn’t sound that dull and boring at first, but we learn that even while zipping around on her scooter with Cartier bags in tow, she still has to haggle over what she gets paid, and one can imagine that she doesn’t exactly live that well off at the moment.
Stewart has long had to shrug the fame, fortune, and infamy that the TWILIGHT series brought to her. Some still see her as nothing more than a bad actress from a bad movie series. That’s a shame because Stewart has not only proven she is worthy of watching on screen, but she’s also made interesting choices on the movie front. She’s bounced from role to role, giving them a full go whether it is an action film, romance, or indie dramas. Like the last Assayas film, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA.
Much like that film, we find Stewart in an almost natural state. She wears layered clothing that is more shabby than fashion-forward. It oozes comfort but isn’t quite sweatpants and hoodies. Jeans are a staple, but it’s also her demeanor. She is relaxed and not afraid of a challenge. There’s a confidence in her job but not necessarily in her life. In fact, her life is a bit of a shambles here. While she is struggling to find purpose in her life she also is trying to hold true to a pact she made with her twin brother who suffered from a similar heart condition. You see, they were both mediums. They professed to have the ability to speak to dead people. So their pact was that if either of them should pass away, they would attempt to get in contact with the other from the afterlife.
The issue is that while Stewart’s Maureen makes contact with an entity at her brother’s old home, we quickly find out it isn’t him. While some filmmakers might then turn and make everything hokey and jarring, PERSONAL SHOPPER calmly shifts focus. The film revolves around the feeling of grief and how we handle it in different ways. But it never makes light of the idea of ghosts or mediums. Maureen just exists. She’s exhausted from running this errand and that while negotiating with someone that is never there.
Truly, PERSONAL SHOPPER isn’t interested in expectations. Assayas seems to strive to make the film compelling despite pulling you in different directions. It reminds one of hearing of a vivid travel story where the narrative might jump but keeps you enthralled throughout. It’s Stewart that is the front and center focus so by the middle during a sustained exchange of texts with an unknown person we follow her without question.
Some might be sold on the ghost story and expect jump scares and loud crashes. While there are a few thrills and one genuinely chilling moment, it’s all relatively tame by today’s brash standards. The weaving nature of the narrative, if you are game for the ride, rewards you with an intimate look at a single person’s experience with grief and the possibility of the afterlife. Maureen isn’t ever outright bawling. She holds it inside and her boyfriend attempts to give her guidance as best as he can from a distance.
But nothing will really suffice for contact with her brother and you can imagine that it is frustrating to have had contact with spirits in the past and yet struggle to find your dearly departed brother as a willing spirit. In this way we get a bit of resolution. Yet, the film twists and turns that by the end it can easily have a different genre category attached to it. I won’t spoil it but suffice it to say that it goes in some unexpected places.
Ultimately, PERSONAL SHOPPER is a mixed bag. It delights throughout but might leave many viewers confused as to the narrative arc and the mixing of genres and tone. It never quite moves into the realm of schlock or hokiness that a lesser filmmaker might be unable to resist and is elevated because of that. With a confident director navigating us through the turns we feel assured to focus in on Maureen and give in to her journey. It’s a shame they don’t make more ghost stories like this but something tells me this won’t be the last collaboration between Assayas and Stewart, so we have more adventures ahead.
PERSONAL SHOPPER is now playing in limited release.