A Timely Review of Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper

Last night, I saw Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper during it’s final showing at a local independent theater, almost two months after its initial wide release in the US because that’s how things work when you live in a rinky dink SEC town. Anyway, it was great! And so I thought, what better way to “reboot” my rarely updated weblog (or “blog”) than with a review of a movie that’s probably not playing in theaters near any of the five people who might read this and which isn’t set to come out on home video for another month or so. As they say, the best virtue of arts journalism is timeliness.

But yeah, Personal Shopper. It’s so good! I don’t normally like to lavish unchecked praise on anything, but I’m not quite sure how else to respond to this film, which left me genuine shaken and mesmerized. It’s one of those movies you feel in your spine, if that makes any sense (if it doesn’t then maybe that means you haven’t seen a movie like that, and I feel sorry for you).

I’ll leave it up to these other places to do the yeoman’s work of things like “summarizing the plot” or “identifying themes” or “assessing the quality of direction, scriptwriting, and acting.” Instead, I want to focus on one very specific aspect, the discussion of which you can only probably really appreciate if you’ve already seen the film and thus know the scenes I’m talking about. So, if you haven’t, maybe bookmark this page and come back in a month? I don’t know, it’s really up to you.

Anyway, the thing I want to talk about is the film’s treatment of technology, and specifically text messaging. This is a movie that really and truly “gets” the strange and often uncanny experience of texting, particularly the paradoxical way that the medium can be both anonymous and intimate. You see, one of the film’s major subplots involves Kristen Stewart’s character receiving a series of mysterious, sometimes inquiring, sometimes menacing text messages from an Unknown number, the provenance of which may be either living or dead.

One the one hand, the uncertainty about whether the texts are from an actual ghost or just some flesh-and-blood creep helps make these scenes more intriguing and suspenseful than one would expect of a sequence depicting a person doing little more than staring at their phone. Indeed, this uncertainty is part-and-parcel with the film’s overall sense of indeterminateness, which is a product of the fact that, as Anthony Lane points out in his New Yorker review, it is essentially a mash-up of three or four different genres. As a result, it becomes impossible for you to reliably fall back on knowledge of genre convention on order to predict what will happen next or even really comfortably orient yourself within the film’s world. This sustained nature of this creeping, disturbing uncertainty, helped along immeasurably by Stewart’s simultaneously reticent and emotive performance, is among the film’s most impressive aesthetic and formal accomplishments.

On a more visceral level, though, the text messaging sequences manage to capture the lure of the iPhone screen, the ease with which boredom and disaffection can combine with the anonymity afforded by digital communication to open a space that allows you to have lengthy, sometimes highly charged, conversations with people you barely know (shout out to Tinder), and the terrible suspense of staring at those three blinking dots as you wait for your absent interlocutor to respond to your desperate attempts to connect across the void.

In conclusion, what a movie! Seven thumbs up! See it when you can!

Note: this review also appears on my personal blog, nathanieldeyo.wordpress.com. Thanks for reading.