Apparently, my definitions of film genres are different from the norm. For example, I have a very clear definition for what does, and what does not, constitute a horror film (as opposed to, for example, a psychological thriller). My definition is this: If the film clearly involves the supernatural, and this involvement includes elements of suspense and fear, it is a horror film. If a film does not involve anything supernatural, than it is, for me, not a horror film. So while Alien qualifies as possessing all the elements of a terrifying horror flick, it does not involve the supernatural and is therefore simply a sci-fi film (bad example, but helps make my point). The same applies to slasher films and psychological thrillers, horrific as they may be.
So Personal Shopper, despite all the conflicting descriptions (e.g. ‘a drama that masquerades as a ghost story’), is not, first and foremost, a drama or a psychological thriller, though it certainly is those as well. Personal Shopper is a horror film, albeit a Hitchcockian style of horror film. I am not, generally, a fan of horror films, but because this one was directed by Olivier Assayas, all of whose films have received ***+ from me, I decided to give it a look (especially since, with my festival pass, it cost me nothing extra to do so). The controversial reception at Cannes also made it a must-see, since it was booed at its initial screening only to receive a 5-minute standing ovation at its official premiere and having Assayas win the Best Director award.
Ten minutes into Personal Shopper, I was beginning to regret my decision to watch it. Despite there being no overt horror during those ten minutes, it was scary as hell, not least because the protagonist, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), insisted, for no apparent reason, on walking, by herself, through a spooky old deserted mansion in Paris in the dark. She could have turned on the lights, and friends had offered to join her, so what the heck?
Well, it turns out Maureen had a good reason for what she was doing. She was looking for a sign from her recently-deceased twin brother, who had made a pact with Maureen that the first of them to die (they shared a heart defect) would give a sign to the other that they were still around in spirit form. Maureen had given herself three months to discover that sign and the old mansion was the house in which they had grown up and where her brother died, so…
It also turns out that those first ten minutes are the scariest in the film, although the more answers the plot provided, the more unanswered questions came up, resulting in one of the most confusing films I have watched in a long time. At the same time, Personal Shopper felt intelligent enough to be intentionally confusing and it never stopped being fascinating, so I actually quite enjoyed it, thanks especially to Stewart’s sublime effortless performance (something she also pulled off in Assayas’s last film, Clouds of Sils Maria).
To flesh out the plot a little: Besides being a medium, Maureen is the personal shopper (mostly clothes) for a demanding supermodel named Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten). After Maureen’s visits to the old mansion, she gets text messages from an unknown source (perhaps her brother, she thinks) that spur her on to actions she has wanted to take but never dared, like trying on Kyra’s clothes and sleeping on her bed. All of this will lead to a very dark and mysterious (i.e. confusing) climax.
I enjoy mysterious screenplays, but the ending was just too confusing for me, whether that confusion was intentional or not. Nevertheless, Personal Shopper is worthy of a very solid ***. My mug is up.