Grief is one hell of an emotion. For those who have ever had the displeasure of finding themselves coping with it, the feeling can quite literally be indescribable; like experiencing the infamous ‘five stages of grief’ all at the exact same time, and with each one constantly competing for the most attention. So, with cinema being the powerful tool that it is – one of its greatest capabilities being the potential for subtly instilling empathy within the viewer – there seems to be no better avenue for exploring grief in its entire confounding splendor. And out of some bizarre cosmic coincidence, there’s been an influx during the last year of grief and mourning-centered films that have been getting made and released (think A Monster Calls and Jackie, among others). Yet another one of the most recent followers of this trend would be the French produced yet English-language psychological thriller Personal Shopper.
This film reunites the acting/directing partnership of Kirsten Stewart and Olivier Assayas, whose previous team-up resulted in heaps of critical accolades and global awards prospects for the both of them, the film in question being the satirical dramadey Clouds of Sils Maria. With that in mind, this latest collaboration between the two had a lot to live up to, both for critics and audiences alike. So, in the humble opinion of this particular reviewer, they not only succeeded in matching their previous work, but might have even surpassed it with one of the most challenging and unusual horror genre hybrids we’ve seen in quite some time.
Plot-wise, I’m reluctant to get into it all that much. For the most part because there admittedly isn’t that much of a literal A to Z storyline going on here, but also because I wouldn’t dare reveal whatever surprises that the film does indeed hold in store. But to cover just the basics: the aforementioned K-Stew plays a young woman named Maureen living in Paris who works as a titular “personal shopper” (ask your hipster roommate who studied abroad in Paris for a year) for a fictional French celebrity. On the side, she also moonlights as a psychic medium who communicates with the spirits of the dead, and therefore hopes to make contact with the essence of her recently deceased twin brother. From there, Maureen finds herself getting involved with all manner of bizarre spiritual entities and things only proceed to get weirder, deadlier, and more supernatural as the film moves forward.
As indicated by my purposefully vague, brief plot summary, the impact and emotional toll of the grieving process no doubt plays a large role in the thematic elements of Personal Shopper. More than most films dealing with the subject matter, this one tackles it in a very understated, almost passive manner. So much so that it runs the risk of becoming alienating towards audiences less accustomed towards its slower, subtle direction; but the combination of intelligent screenwriting and cautious pacing allows for a lot of breathing room. The two manage to work hand in hand surprisingly well, making this one of the most unique and singular horror-lite films released this year.
Despite my raving about it throughout most of this review, I fully acknowledge that Personal Shopper won’t be for everyone. Most viewers will probably be drawn in by its slow, deliberate pace and be really impacted in the end, whereas others will might find it’s tone to be alienating and too languid to leave much of a lasting impact. The best suggestion I can give would be for you to find out for yourself and give it a shot if what I’ve described sounds in any way interesting to you. Even while recognizing how inaccessible it might be for some, there’s more than enough to recommend in here for even the most casual of viewers. Just don’t go in expecting a typical ghost story or some token weepy melodrama, and you should be just fine.