Personal Shopper tackles Grief and Ghosts

Personal Shopper is difficult to pin down to a specific genre. It is ostensibly a horror movie focusing on a medium haunted by ghosts, but the ghosts and the horror take a sideline to the medium’s personal life and internal conflict. Kristen Stewart takes on the role of Maureen, an American medium in Paris who is waiting for her dead twin brother, Lewis, also a medium, to contact her from the other side. Unfortunately waiting for the dead to contact you doesn’t pay the bills, so Maureen works as a personal shopper for a swanky model named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten).

I’m not a huge horror fan, but I was pretty ready to love Personal Shopper as I heard it subverted the genre. While I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped it did deliver on its promise to take the ghost story in a new direction. The first sequence of the movie sees Maureen spending a shadow drenched night in her dead brother’s house, waiting to hear something from him, but from there the movie treats her talent as a medium as simply a component of her life, not her whole raison d’être. Truth be told, she doesn’t yet have a raison d’être. Maureen is consumed with a search in more ways than one, and while she is looking for her brother she is truly looking for a direction in life. She followed her twin from day one until the day of his death, and now she’s stuck in Paris with a job she hates waiting for a sign that may never come. She’s in mourning, and she is having trouble crawling out of it because she doesn’t have any specific future to grasp for. In an early scene Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra’s lover, and opens up to him rather accidentally, telling him about her brother’s vow to send her a signal. “If you get the signal, what then?” he asks, and she doesn’t have an answer. Kristen Stewart turns in a strong performance – Maureen is intelligent enough to vaguely recognize what her situation is and what she needs to do to overcome it while being shattered enough that she can’t will herself to take the necessary steps, and Stewart conveys that conflict and the exhaustion it breeds well.

Unfortunately the movie fails not in the macro scale, but in the micro. While the overarching story is strong, individual moments fall flat. Pacing is all over the place: we spend a long section at the beginning of the middle act watching Maureen take a train and text back and forth with a stranger. Again, it’s a moment that is conceptually interesting but in execution it becomes a bore. The movie is riddled with troubles like this. The clunky pacing results in few dialogue scenes – normally ideal, but in this case they come across as too on-the-nose, trying to convey a lot of plot information and internal characterization while squeezed between long quiet sections (that, consequentially, have already conveyed most of what the dialogue hurriedly tries to get across). As a personal minor nit-pick, a huge number of scenes fade to black, sometimes without resolving, which is infuriating. As my professor Andy Watts would tell production students: “I don’t want to see a fade to black ever in your movie because it’ll make it seem like you didn’t know how to end the scene.” Personal Shopper is the perfect example to prove the rule.

The movie’s final failing is the isolation of its storylines. Maureen’s splits her time between ghostly visits, a thriller based plot centering on her, her boss, and her mysterious texter, and a quiet story of her dealing with her brother’s girlfriend. The stories barely effect each other and never culminate into anything together. Essentially they all just happen to happen to Maureen. I don’t know if it’s a deal breaker. In some ways I like it. Stewart plays it well enough that the scenes almost seem to bleed into each other, on some level below the surface in Maureen’s internal dialogue, but on a script level it simply doesn’t come across. It’s a bold move, one I respect and think could work… it just doesn’t quite work in this movie. But the plot is complicated and strange, and it’s more than possible that after sleeping on it a night or two the connections will become more apparent to me. This is a movie made with genuine thought, and sometimes those take longer to unpack.

Personal Shopper takes an interesting approach to both its subject matter and to the genres it tightrope walks between, and the movie deserves recognition for that. Better to have tried and come close than not to have tried at all.

Personal Shopper had six point five out of ten spooky creepy puking ghosts (one of the ghosts pukes ectoplasm at some point).

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • In the most relatable scene of the movie, Kristen Stewart turns airplane mode on after sending a text she is nervous about getting an answer to.
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