28 Jul 2016

Personal Shopper doesn't deserve your applause

1:20 pm on 28 July 2016

NZIFF's Personal Shopper has all the hallmarks of a terrible film, writes Katie Parker


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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

Sometimes you go to see a movie and you think it’s going to be about something cool – for instance, ghosts and rich people – and then it turns out it’s all about something else altogether – say, closure and self-discovery and coming to terms with things – and you don’t quite know what to think.

You wanted to like it. You spent $17.50 to see it in the bloody film festy. You are mad.

Or do you just not appreciate TRUE ART? One way or another, the Civic audience on Tuesday night were not feeling it. There were yawns. There were walk outs. There was laughter. A penultimate pivotal moment was particularly hilarious.

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper has all the hallmarks of a terrible film: too many plots; messy narrative; blah characters; total self-indulgence. But in the right hands these things can, occasionally, work, says artsy-fartsy lore. What was going on, that fateful Tuesday night? Were we confused? Were we unprepared?

There are numerous narratives, but the main one is as follows: Kristen Stewart is the titular personal shopper Maureen, an American ghost whisperer in Paris, wanly waiting for a sign from the afterlife from her recently deceased twin brother. And signs she gets: taps turning on, ghosties floating around, creepy text messages from an unknown number. All while dealing with some serious job dissatisfaction.

It it a thriller? A drama? A mystery? A horror? Personal Shopper could be mistaken at times for each but with Assayas abandoning plot points, locations and characters willy nilly, genre comes and goes.

What is constant is Maureen: Maureen rides her scooter; Maureen picks up clothes; Maureen abbreviates "are you" in texts to "r u"; Maureen buys large coffee table books about Hilma af Klint to flip through once and watches old TV movies about Victor Hugo holding a seance on her phone via YouTube. She’s quite a gal.

As such, Personal Shopper is for the most part a meditation on Maureen’s personal, spiritual journey and, though she contends with CGI ghosts, murder, a stalker and rude fashion people, the real problem here is her bougie existential crisis.

Stewart does her best. She’s got to, after all she’s in every scene. And though she achieves the kind of weary, grief stricken malaise required of her, it’s not exactly something I wanted to watch for two hours, especially when when all she does is mope around and try on other people’s undies.

Worst of all, even if you did it’s hard to see how you could find satisfaction in the superficial, cliched conclusions Personal Shopper draws. Which is not to say Assayas leaves things particularly ambiguous. Sure there is a bizarre and utterly nonsensical climax, but the general theme, thanks to a very unsubtle final scene, is VERY CLEAR INDEED.

Assayas seems to have collected a great deal of goodwill from his long career and his last Stewart starring feature, Clouds of Sils Maria, sounds like it has more or less the same plot at least it does to the uninitiated (moi). And some people will certainly enjoy Personal Shopper too. Even though audiences booed it, Assayas collected best director at Cannes for this so someone there must have liked it. But let's be real: making people frustrated and bored and incredulous is not always the cerebral achievement it’s made out to be.

Applauding at the end of NZIFF films always seems super weird. Like unless it’s a local feature, none of the people who made it are actually present at the screening, so it's just a room full of people who just watched a movie clapping together. But it’s a sign that as a civilised adult you appreciated the cultural experience that was bestowed upon you. That you felt it. That you got it. There was no applause at the end of Personal Shopper.

Personal Shopper is currently screening at the NZ International Film Festival.