CANNES, France — The fact that the 2016 Cannes Film Festival reached its halfway point and the boo-birds had been very quiet so far was, for lack of a better word, suspicious. Of course, the notoriously shady global press corps and select film industry illuminati can’t help but vent their frustrations on something, and the first victim of 2016 turned out to be Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper.
The second collaboration between Assayas and Kristen Stewart after 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Shopper finds the Twilight star portraying Maureen, a 27-year-old American who is working in Paris as a personal shopper for a European celebrity. The gig involves traveling to different fashion houses and picking out clothes for the celebrity to wear.
Maureen is miserable, but the job allows her to remain in the city where she’s waiting for her twin, Lewis, to contact her. The twist is that her brother has recently passed away; both siblings considered themselves mediums who could connect to the spirit world, and because of their "sensitive" abilities, Lewis promised to contact her within three months of his passing if he died before her.
In fact, the film's opening sequence involves Maureen spending the night at a Lewis’s now-abandoned home as she searches for any sign from the other side. But that’s only half of the story.
The genre elements work for the most part, but Personal Shopper is really about Maureen overcoming fear to find her own identity. Along the way, Assayas peppers in a murder subplot, a text-based mystery between Paris and London that features almost no dialogue, and, oh yes, a not-so-benevolent and scary spirit.
It would spoil the movie to discuss its final scene, but suffice to say that Personal Shopper's ending is ambiguous — and that’s one possible explanation for the audience’s boos at Cannes.
"Movies have a life of their own. What is exciting about Cannes is that yesterday no one had seen the film," Assayas said during a press conference the following day. "[Now] the whole world had seen it. [The ending] is a very intense, very powerful moment."
He continued, "It's interesting because it happens to me once in awhile where people just don't get the ending. To me it's kind of pretty clear that Maureen finds some sort of reconciliation."
Assayas then went on to explain what actually happened to Maureen (a spoiler that wouldn't make sense out of context, even if I did include it here). Stewart, who was sitting next to Assayas during the press conference, immediately jumped, as the filmmaker revealed something he wouldn’t tell her during production. "This is answering the question! This is crazy."
It goes without saying that it’s generally a bad thing to have your film booed at Cannes. Personal Shopper may be the most polarizing picture of the festival so far, but some critics are helping turn the tide. In Time Out, Guy Lodge described it as a "glassy sashay through multiple, splintered genres and levels of consciousness" while the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw raved, giving it five out of five stars and calling Stewart’s performance "tremendous."
That being said, Variety’s Peter Debruge labeled it "one of the most divisive films of Stewart’s career" and the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy simply didn’t spark to the material, calling it "spooky hokum." Indeed, upon hearing those assessments, Personal Shopper's visceral, boo-filled reception at Cannes might be a little easier to understand.
Assayas said one of his goals with the film was to connect the reality we live in to our imagination. He explained, "We live on both sides of that mirror. We do a job, and we have an imagination. We have our memories. It's a very inhabited solitude. I think the character of Maureen is looking for doors and passages in those two worlds."
Stewart — who juggled 16-hour days seven days a week while shooting Personal Shopper — described it as one of the toughest jobs of her career. And, one she’s quite proud of.
"I don't mean to sound so dramatic or actor-y, like, 'It almost broke me,' but genuinely I [now feel I] can do anything," Stewart said. "This movie made me feel like there is nothing I can't put myself through. I never felt so good for feeling so bad."