Every year there is at least one film that b
If the sustained booing that greeted “Personal Shopper” at its first Cannes screening on Monday is any indication (and it usually is), we have this year’s unfortunate designee.
Did the film deserve the chorus of jeers (which was by no means unanimous, it bears noting) and hisses? Well, of course not. No movie deserves booing, let alone one so rich with ideas and formal approaches as this. But I’ll grant that for all its merits, “Personal Shopper” is something of a hot mess.
Kristen Stewart reteams with Olivier Assayas for a film that feels like the evil twin of their previous collaboration, the stately if rather bloodless “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Here, too, Stewart plays an assistant. And here, too, is the focus on mortality in a high culture setting. But believe me when I say that, this time, Assayas really brings the blood.
Stewart plays Maureen, a young American living in Paris. Maureen works as a unique kind of assistant to model/actress/socialite Kyra. Her task is to fill Kyra’s closet with the best items in London and Paris — a cushy gig, and Maureen hates it. We soon learn the real reason Maureen sticks around: She can communicate with the dead and is waiting to hear word from her recently deceased twin brother before leaving town.
And then one night, she does. Camped out in the house where her brother died, Maureen unlocks … something. A ghost, for certain. But it’s unclear if the ghost is that of her brother or of somebody else, and it’s unclear if it is a benign force or one with evil intentions. The answer is probably the latter, judging from the film’s subsequent turns.
Most of the film is creepy as hell, with some scenes that are downright scary, but don’t confuse this for your average horror thriller. Erudite and whip-smart, Assayas sets the film on plenty of digressions, alternately contemplating Victor Hugo, early abstract photography and 1960s television.
The professorial Assayas often seems happier to ask questions rather than answer them, and that includes the central mystery of “What the hell is going on?” He’ll often fade out halfway through a scene, as if he’d lost interest and wanted to move somewhere else, and there’s no doubt that such were the touches that angered much of the audience on Monday.
Those touches don’t necessarily make “Personal Shopper” a bad film — they make it an Olivier Assayas film. You get the good with bad with Assayas, and there’s plenty of good here, too. The director makes great use of his roving camera, moving through space and building tension with simple steadycam pans. He makes great use of his lead actress, finding jittery — and, yes, sexual — energy in Stewart that no other director can seem to unlock.
If that has to come alongside formal experiments that don’t quite work, questions that don’t get answered and character motivations that sometimes don’t make sense, then so be it. Along with that, you also get a 20-minute sequence where Stewart engages in aggressive texting with what might be a ghost. What kind of monster could ever boo that?