Open Letter to Personal Shopper Loyalists

HE to Guy Lodge, Richard Lawson, Eric Kohn, Stephanie Zacharek, Peter Bradshaw, Robbie Collin, Tim Grierson, Jake Howell and others who were hugely impressed by Olivier AssayasPersonal Shopper: We were all knocked back when it played in Cannes five weeks ago, but a few too many critic friends have since told me “nope, not for me, didn’t care for it,” etc. And yet some of these same naysayers liked or even loved The Conjuring 2, which operates way, way below the level of Assayas’ film. And that, to me, is appalling.

All I can figure is that Personal Shopper is too antsy and schizo for some people. It’s too teasing and darting and inconclusive. It doesn’t behave like other ghost stories, and some just don’t know what to do with it. So they toss it and wash their hands.

Have any of you thought about the schism between admirers and dissers? What are your thoughts? What’s going on here?

There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind about how uniquely chilling and riveting this film is — it’s my second favorite film of the year after Manchester by the Sea — and how stunningly good Stewart’s performance is. And yet two or three days ago Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger of the Telluride Film Festival were both telling me how they didn’t care for it. C’mon!

I posted a short “Friends of Personal Shopper” piece in Cannes on 5.17, but here’s a more comprehensive rundown of the best raves:

Personal Shopper is strange, frightening, and possessed of a dark ribbon of sadness that no champagne gulped down at a post-screening beach party could drown out. There are certain scenes — scored by ominous thuds and whispering wind — that are so frightening that they were, for this wimp, extraordinarily hard to watch. A horror movie with a matte, flat-faced demeanor [and] a grief drama with a shiver of sylphic humor, Personal Shopper is as cathartic as it is terrifying, as knowing and wise about the weirder mechanics of the grieving process as it is utterly confusing.” — Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair.

“It is actually Assayas’s best film for a long time, and Stewart’s best performance to date — she stars in a supernatural fashionista-stalker nightmare where the villain could yet be the heroine’s own spiteful id. Is it The Devil Wears Prada meets The Handmaiden (also in Cannes) with a touch of Single White Female?” — The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw.

Personal Shopper is like a triple death jump without a safety net, one of the bravest and risk taking films that have ever been shown in Cannes. — Carlos F. Heredero, Caimán Cuadernos de Cine.

“This is a measured, richly ambiguous work about the subjective process of grief — masquerading as a ghost story — that experiments with the minutiae of film language as only a master of the medium can do. [It’s] a cinephile’s idea of a horror movie, their headiest ingredients elevated to an abstract plane. The slick camerawork, slow-burn tension and mysterious circumstances have less to do with shock value than the interior processes behind it. Audiences unwilling to wrestle with this fascinating gamble demonstrate the worst fear plaguing moviegoing culture: Something different.” — Eric Kohn, Indiewire.

“Among the many things that appear to be on Assayas’s mind is the disembodied — and disembodying — nature of modern-day communication and social media, which makes ghosts of us all to those with whom we text far more than we talk. Perhaps no film has ever made the mobile phone quite such an instrument of tension: the on-screen iPhone ellipsis of an incoming message takes on a breath-halting urgency here. No more should be revealed about the film’s gliding, glassy sashay through multiple, splintered genres and levels of consciousness – except to say that Assayas, working in the high-concept, game-playing vein of his Irma Vep and demonlover, is in shivery control of it all.” — Guy Lodge, Time Out.

Personal Shopper was booed not because it’s bad (it emphatically isn’t), but because it breaks lots of good-taste conventions in a way that’s deliberately designed to set your soul jangling. For one thing, it features explicit — and occasionally terrifying — supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror or fantasy film, and they’re presented without a smidge of insincerity or irony. For another, it elongates and teases when other films would accelerate and summarize. Stewart’s performance is detailed and considered yet shiveringly natural: it might even be the minor-key equal of her César-winning work in Clouds of Sils Maria.” — Robbie Collin, The Telegraph.

“Assayas taps a wellspring of thought on forms of communication [while drawing] parallels between 19th century drawing-room seances and Skype calls. In Personal Shopper, death is just another form of alienation, a physical remove from a person we once knew. Words themselves come under close scrutiny, and Assayas asks if we can ever truly connect with another person if we’re not standing right in front of them and communing fully with the senses. The incessant buzz of a smartphone becomes an attention-grabbing scream from out of the ether.” — Little White LiesDavid Jenkins.

“It’s a must-see for anyone who wonders what it might look like if a cerebral French art-film director tried to make The Conjuring 3…a film that’s attempting something singular. Which is preferable: a movie that’s consistently engrossing, but fails to stick the landing, or a movie that’s so-so for much of its duration, but delivers a conclusion that retroactively enriches everything that preceded it?” — Mike D’Angelo, A.V. Club.

“We’re not entirely sure of what to be scared of: a human stalker, a psychological disfiguration, an evil spirit or a kind one. Is the supernatural a consequence of Maureen’s instability, something metaphysical or a force that can’t be explained or identified? Honestly, I don’t think even the film knows. It allows the mysteries to sit there, to not make sense of anything and to allow the unease to simmer without fully defining what happens. This can be frustrating: it’s a mystery without a solution, a whodunit without a perpetrator. But this is cinema about faith and bolstered by it: we fear only what we can imagine, not what is seen. — Josh Cabrita, We Got This Covered.

“Assayas is working on a deeper, more metaphoric level, abandoning strict narrative cause-and-effect logic to give us fragments of Maureen’s life refracted through conflicting experiences. Nothing happens in this film as a direct result of what came before, which explains why the sudden appearance of suggestive, potentially dangerous text messages can be interpreted as a literal threat or as some strange cosmic manifestation of other, subtler anxieties.” — Tim Grierson, Paste magazine.

Personal Shopper wrings the most out of every moment, which occasionally messes with the tonality of the film and the flow of a coherent narrative; is it a horror film or murder mystery or a coming-of-self drama? But Assayas and Stewart both exhibit masterful command in their grasp of twisty storytelling and full-bodied characterization; the joy is in deciphering their examination of an unsatisfying existential familiarity, presented in a most unfamiliar manner.” — Simon Foster, Screen-Space.

Sidenote: Personal Shopper delivers a few agreeable seconds of Stewart in a mostly uncovered state. If she and Assayas had somehow made this film three or four years ago, LexG (who of course has since moved on to younger talent) would have succumbed to cardiac arrest in his seat.

  • You’d be surprised, Jeff. In recent weeks, Lex’s Twitter feed has largely involved passionate calls for tariff reform, links to animal welfare charities and tasteful glamour shots from MGM’s heyday.

  • Cobraverde

    Since Personal Shopper is a long way from release I can’t comment, but Conjuring 2: scares for the proletariat. Fair dues it has a good central cast (though Franka Potente is wasted) subtle it ain’t. One of the reshoot scenes, the nun painting comin’ at ya with her toung sticking out, was just silly. But that’s the way the masses like their ghosties, hitting them over the head with a hammer to the tune of a Victorian Zoetrope. The nightly news is scarier.

  • brenkilco

    “It allows the mysteries to sit there, to not make sense of anything and to allow the unease to simmer without fully defining what happens. This can be frustrating”

    Really?

    “It’s a must-see for anyone who wonders what it might look like if a cerebral French art-film director tried to make The Conjuring 3…”

    Uh, well.. to be honest…

    “a grief drama with a shiver of sylphic humor”

    Heard any scary Kendall Jenner jokes lately?

    I love critics.

    • See? You’re a manifestation of the problem. You like fast-food ghost/horror films. Big Mac-sized, pickles, onions, extra cheese.

      • brenkilco

        I love The Innocents and The Haunting. And The Uninvited is one of my favorite movies. So fuck off.

        The undercurrent of these reviews is that this is an arty wank rather than a genuinely good, subtle ghost story. We’ll see

        • Trust me — it’s “a genuinely good, subtle ghost story.” You’re not reading the reviews if you suspect otherwise. Read the Lawson piece. Read the Bradshaw.

  • Hardcore Henry V

    Eh, I dig Assayas so I’ll probably end up loving this, but just to take the contrary position here (‘cuz it’s what I do):

    What Jeff doesn’t really get about genre fans (well, I think he “gets” it, he just wholly rejects it) is that when your workaday Joe Popcorn buys a ticket for a horror movie — or, for that matter, a comedy — he/she is essentially buying a ticket to a ride largely measured in scares (or laughs). Yeah, it’s a bonus if the movie seems well-shot or well-cast or whatever, but at the end of the day the average film fan doesn’t care nearly as much about aesthetics as having AN EXPERIENCE. And, yeah, you can ridicule that all you want, but Jeff’s version of a scary movie is akin to recommending a theme park based on the logistical layout and architecture as opposed to the actual COASTERS.

    This new trend of high-concept arthouse horror — Babadook, The VVitch, Goodnight Mommy (I’ll give It Follows a pass here as the concept is so good and SO close to working, athough it falls into many of the same traps as the others) is, truth be told, kinda bullshit. People seemed pretty pissed coming out of my flyover screening of The Witch, and I could kinda understand why (even if I probably enjoyed it more than most of them). It’s not fucking scary. Like, at all. It’s also pretty dull and almost impossible to understand what any of the characters are saying to each other at any given moment (these two things may or may not be connected).

    The slow-burn scare (a la Repulsion, Shining, NotLD) is one of the most satisfying cinematic pleasures there is — it is also , unfortunately, one of the most difficult techniques to master. Hitchcock used to nail it (although he used it surprisingly sparingly), Lynch had it but lost it (I think?), Cronenberg has the skill set but I don’t believe he’s ever gone all-in on it (maybe Videodrome?), Shyamalan built an entire career on its promise.

    All that being said, I’m with you on the overrated Conjuring property — I didn’t find the first one the least bit frightening (but I generally find ALL possession flicks to be pretty silly).

    • John Cope

      I admired The Witch but more in theory than actuality. The director’s commentary is more fulfilling than the film as far as I’m concerned. I did, however, think very highly of Flanagan’s Oculus, one of the best and deepest of recent horror films.

      • Hardcore Henry V

        That’s a good shout-out to one of the more underseen horror pics in recent years — I really liked Oculus, too, and wouldn’t ever put it on such a list of fulms wirh “non-scary scares.” As you noted, it has depth, and that can go a long way in the genre.

        You know a movie I really kinda dug that seems to have pretty much disappeared from everybody’s memory at this point? Richard Kelly’s The Box.

        I was extremely skeptical going in because that TZ ep. — as classic as it is — is not enough to support a feature-length running time. But after setting up (/rehashing) the premise, it pretty much feels free to veer off onto its own weird wavelengths.

        If I were working at a video store, I’m not sure how I would classify it — let alone attempt to describe it (ditto Darko) — other than to say you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it. Which is usually the best recommendation anyone can ever give anything.

  • Jake Howell

    I’ll go to bat for this movie. It’s sexy, it’s daring, it’s everything NEON DEMON wants to be but isn’t. When I’m genuinely unsettled by a thriller while also driven to formulate a deeper analysis, I know I’m watching something real good. Not sure if there are still extant skeptics of Kristen Stewart’s acting ability, but this movie should be the final nail in the coffin of that particularly misguided belief.

  • Jordan Ruimy

    This is an excerpt from my Cannes review:

    “This is top-notch filmmaking with an impeccable performance by Stewart, who hasn’t really had to carry a full movie on her own until this one. She is alone in many scenes throughout the picture and does an admirable job leaving you in a state of hypnosis with her mannerisms and quirks. Assayas, a great director, quite clearly wanted to create a supernatural atmosphere, with much influence on the 1960 classic The Haunting. As far as those kind of movies go, there is nothing wrong in putting Personal Shopper next to them. The film is meant to be absorbed for what it is: A taut, terrific venture into the unknown.”

  • Edward

    I love horror films. I’ve indulged in all the classics and many of the more gore based, but like you prefer the creepy, get under the skin films. Can’t wait to see this.

  • lola

    You missed this bit from Guy Lodge’s review:
    “And he’s found an impeccably attuned muse in Stewart, who wears the film’s curiosity with the same casually challenging stride that she does – in a key scene of sensual self-realisation – a jaw-dropping silk-organza bondage gown.”