This movie made me nervous which is I suppose the point, but not in the way the director intended. There is genuine suspense, but if you don’t buy the special effects with ectoplasm, you are left with an impatience to see where the plot is going. Personal Shopper‘s supporting cast is minimal and weak, so the movie pretty much rests on the shoulders of Kristen Stewart. The story: Maureen’s (Stewart) twin brother, Lewis, has died of a heart condition she also has, and since both of them are mediums, Maureen is waiting to see if he will speak to her, or let her know if he has reached the other side. I learned from Wikipedia why the director doggedly depended on low lighting during these scenes. “According to some mediums, the ectoplasm can not occur in light conditions as the ectoplasmic substance would disintegrate.”
I wish I knew more about the characters. We learn that Lewis loved carpentry, and wanted to create a school for it, in the old house about to be sold. We watch Maureen’s dependence on her phone, which she uses constantly to listen to (what?) and watch an old movie about Victor Hugo communicating with spirits as she disembarks from a train.
After Maureen’s effort to find her dead brother’s spirit in his house, she is back at work, selecting clothes for her celebrity employer. An incident of buying some leather pants seems to have more portent. When Maureen attempts to retrieve these pants because the store did not approve them being worn and returned, a man is in the apartment. Ingo (Lars Eidinger) is the boyfriend of Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), her celebrity boss, and somehow manages to elicit the story of Maureen and her brother. Both characters are frustrated by Kyra, who is evidently a terrible pain, spoiled in the extreme, expecting to have everything her way no matter how unjustified.
The scenes with the most tension occur as Maureen, on her way to London on the Chunnel (many scenes involve commuting, going to and fro, including some of the best photography in the movie, when Maureen is on her motorbike), receives a text message from an unknown sender, asking her when she will arrive, indicating that he has personal details about her. Now the movie shifts genres and becomes a mystery / thriller. Could the texter possibly be her brother?
Perhaps the real subject of the movie is our compulsion to depend on technology to lead us where we don’t want to go. How did the unknown speaker in Maureen’s texts get her number? Why does she continue a conversation with a mildly threatening disembodied voice? Is this how we are haunted now? Not by ectoplasm, but by bytes and bits ? Assayas is enchanted with the woop noise that accompanies the text as it is sent to the recipient.
There are some surprises and sudden jolts of violence in the movie, which gave me more to think about after I had left the theater than when I was in it. Even though the metaphysical questions at its heart are worthy– who are we really? why are we here? where are we going? is there life after death?– something slightly pretentious and disingenuous about the filmmaking (those beginning endless scenes with irritating low lighting at dusk), the script (weak dialogue especially for the supporting cast), and the acting (Stewart flounders and stammers too much) left a sour taste in my mouth. Still, Stewart is a beautiful actress, and one can see why Assayas is mesmerized by her. A pity this movie did not have, as did The Clouds of Sils Maria, an actress of the caliber of Juliette Binoche to play against.