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Kristen Stewart was terrific playing Juliette Binoche’s personal assistant in Olivier Assayas’ 2014 Cannes competition entry, Clouds of Sils Maria, but she should have quit while she was ahead rather than take on such a similar role in Assayas’ latest, Personal Shopper. A sort-of ghost story about a young American in Paris who half-believes she’s in contact with her late twin brother, this aggravatingly empty would-be suspense piece puts all its trust in its star to save the day, but even this compulsively watchable performer can’t elevate such a vapid, undeveloped screenplay. Perhaps some American distributor will decide that Stewart’s name connected to an R-rated would-be scarefest might be promotable as a quick Halloween cash-in, but theaters would quickly empty when word gets around.
Despite its upscale Paris and (briefly) London settings and elaborate intellectual underpinnings to justify its interest in communication with the spirit world, this is spooky hokum from start to finish, not the sort of thing art house followers have ever expected from the intellectually venturesome Assayas.
At first, Stewart’s trendy but moodily downcast Maureen bumps around in the large country house where her brother Lewis died a few months back and where, encouraged to think so by his surviving girlfriend Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), she feels she may have detected his presence. Maureen is particularly susceptible to the possibility of otherworldly contact since she suffers from the same physical “deformation.”
Back in Paris, she glumly tends to the wardrobe and accessory needs of her major celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten, memorable from Assayas’ great Carlos), who’s mostly absent, leaving Stewart to occupy the screen alone much of the time. This is something the actress can normally handle with aplomb, given her great skill at communicating thoughts and emotional shifts via minute and subtle shadings. But even she has got to have a little more to work with than what Assayas gives her here, which consist of quotidian chores (often picking up wardrobe and accessory items at the fanciest shops) and, increasingly, being spooked by a presence that won’t identify itself.
This central interlude begins intriguingly but goes on so long as to become tedious and annoying. Embarking on a quick roundtrip shopping expedition to London via the Chunnel train, Maureen starts receiving phone texts stating, “I know you,” and escalating from there into creepy insinuations, disturbing questions, vague threats and suggestions that the figure on the other end is very nearby. Combined as it is with the novel train journey and boutique visit, this is mildly engaging for a bit, but to devote more than 20 minutes to texting as the dominant onscreen activity far overestimates its fascination.
As with any number of Hollywood and British horror quickies of an earlier era, all the film is really about is whether or not the protagonist is going to succumb to the belief that an inhabitant of the spirit world is in a position to make contact with humans who still walk the earth. As with most such stories, this one has a much more prosaic resolution to its mystery.
Even Stewart’s usual screen magic isn’t enough to make Personal Shopper worth seeing; her character is tense, uncertain and not particularly articulate most of the time and is operating largely in a vacuum. The majority of the other characters are unappealing and/or creepy, and the dialogue lacks spark.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Production companies: CG Cinema, Vortex Sutra, Sirena Film, Detail Films, Arte France Cinema, Arte Deutschland/WDR
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Nora von Waldstatten, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Pascal Rambert, Audrey Bonnet
Director-screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Producer: Charles Gillibert
Director of photography: Yorick Lesaux
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Costume designer: Jurgen Doering
Editor: Marion Monnier
Casting: Antoinette Boulat
Not rated, 105 minutes
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