Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.
There has to be a substantial amount of freedom in being the focus of a huge cinematic series. Plenty of actors have, after starring in something huge, retired and done something different (Jack Gleeson, for instance, retired from acting in his early 20s after playing Joffrey Baratheon on Game of Thrones). Others have used that fame and the lack of need for money to do only projects that interest them. Daniel Radcliffe and Elijah Wood are great examples of this. They’re now doing arthouse films and unusual projects. And now, the same can be said of the stars of the Twilight movies. Robert Pattinson has started doing work like Good Time and Kristen Stewart, after being the butt of endless jokes, has started directing. She’s also started doing movies like Personal Shopper that are everything the crass materialism and bullshit romance of Twilight is not.
Personal Shopper is something like a horror movie in the sense that it deals with spirits and the afterlife in some respect, but this is not anything like a traditional horror movie. There are a few supernatural-style scares, but most of the unsettling things happening here have a source that is ultimately unknown. While there is always a sense of there being something unsettling happening, it’s a much more vague feeling of dread than it is anything else.
Maureen (Stewart) is a personal shopper for a celebrity model named Kyra (Nora Waldstatten). Her life consists of going to high-priced shops and picking out shoes, clothing, and jewelry for Kyra and attending to a variety of personal tasks as well. In the midst of this, Maureen’s twin brother Lewis dies from a heart condition, one that she shares. The two have known for some time that death could come at virtually any time for them and made a pact with each other to attempt to make contact with the surviving twin after death. Maureen sees herself as psychically sensitive and Lewis, among other things, was a medium.
Maureen, spending the night in her late brother’s house, feels the presence of a presence that she cannot explain, and on a subsequent night, is threatened by an angry female spirit that causes her to leave the house. She travels to London on Kyra’s business and begins receiving texts from an unknown number. The texts show a disturbing level of knowledge about Maureen, her situation, and her actions, and she begins to wonder if somehow they are coming from Lewis. She eventually discovers that there is a hotel room awaiting her, prepaid in cash.
There is a great deal to like about Personal Shopper, and a substantial part of it is Kristen Stewart’s performance. The knock on Stewart has always been that she is completely non-expressive. Her participation in the Twilight franchise made her a household name. It also earned her mountains of undeserved enmity from people who assumed that because of her association with that fell franchise she must be equally worthless. It also made her wealthy, allowing her to pursue projects like this one and demonstrate the sort of promise she showed early in her career with films like Panic Room and Into the Wild.
The downside of Personal Shopper isn’t that it doesn’t know what it wants to be, although there is some sense of that in the film. It wants to be a horror movie in some respects and does have some clear elements of horror, but it never really capitalizes on the mood that it builds throughout. It has a great deal in common with films like I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, where the scares are few and far between and nothing ever feels like it entirely resolves in a way that is satisfying. There are moments that touch on the odd sense of otherness—a floating glass, water faucets that suddenly turn on—but aside from a few moments in the middle, this is more like lightly brushing the sense of the supernatural rather than diving headlong into it.
The fact that the story feels unfinished is my biggest issue. Personal Shopper doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as simply come to a point where it stops.
And yet, it’s worth seeing. It’s smart and subtle. It wants to be taken seriously, and should be. That it doesn’t so much conclude instead of merely stop is not the huge weakness I make it out to be, either. There is a sense that there is something that will continue on after the film ends. As much as I want something that really signifies the end, it ends the way it probably should.
Why to watch Personal Shopper: Kristen Stewart is making a career for herself, and it’s worth watching.
Why not to watch: It feels like it just ends rather than ties up in some respects.