Haunted by Grief: A Review of Personal Shopper (2016)

Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, begins with the presence of an ghost. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) wanders through an empty house. Doors slam in the distance, things creak. She speaks a name and we see a flicker of something in the shadows behind her, though it’s not entirely clear what.

It’s a perfect set up for a horror movie — the woman alone in the house, the strange sounds, the ghost — and yet, Personal Shopper confounds the viewer by breaking with the expected tropes. Yes, there are ghosts (or something resembling them), but they are mostly harmless, just whispering figures in the dark.

Maureen is a medium, like her twin brother. Each made a pact to the other — whoever dies first would return as a spirit and communicate with the living sibling, proving the existence of an afterlife. So, following her brother’s death, Maureen is in Paris waiting for some sign, some message.

What complicates her search is that she is not a believer (something I’ve never seen from any other medium in a movie before). While Maureen admits to be a medium and being able to sense entities in the world around her, she is not convinced that these entities are human spirits. Even though evidence of a spirit or haunting is present — events that others would take as proof — she remains uncertain as to whether or not this is her brother or something else.

Her pursuit is a blend of doubt and longing. She is desperate to find proof of her brother and finds herself caught in a holding pattern — riding around Paris on a moped and going through the motions of her job as a personal shopper for a celebrity.

Maureen is a woman lost in grief.

One of the most confounding moments in the movie is when it makes a jarring tonal shift as Maureen starts receiving messages from an unknown sender, someone who knows about her and what she’s been doing. Shaken, she at first reaches for the hope that this could be the longed-for proof of her brother’s spirit, only to quickly realize the messages are more likely from a stalker and she becomes wrapped up in a dangerous game.

As a viewer, I found myself confused at first by this storyline. But taking in the context of her character, her choices makes a certain kind of emotional sense. A person lost in their grief might go looking for ways to feel anything else but hurt.

Kristen Stewart’s performance throughout Personal Shopper is stunning. The is the second movie she’s done with Assayas, the first being Clouds of Sils Maria — a movie I adore.  In many instances throughout Personal Shopper, Stewart is alone in a room having to carry the emotional resonance of the moment. And she does so with a beautiful naturalism, bringing up an interior experience to the screen (check out the video essay below for a look at how her acting style has evolved of the years).

Ultimately Personal Shopper is not a horror movie. It defies that expectation at every turn, sometimes in startling and uncomfortable ways. The ending leaves questions confusingly unanswered and is ambiguous to a degree that will likely make some unhappy with the experience. I found myself sitting in silence as the credits rolled, followed by an immediate internet search to see what others thought of the ending and how it was interpreted. It made me wish that I had had someone else watching with me, someone to discuss and debate all the possible meanings.


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Journeying the Devil’s Road

Devil's Road Film
Still from The Devil’s Road in Baja California.

Saturday night, my sister and I dressed to the nines to attend the private screening of The Devil’s Road: A Baja Adventure at the Rio in Santa Cruz. Directed by J.T. Bruce and produced by Todd Bruce and Bri Bruce, the feature-length documentary film is a family affair and a fantastic achievement.

The Devils Road premiers to a sold out theater.
The Devils Road premiers to a sold out theater.

After learning that their family is descended from Edward Goldman — a naturalist who along with Edward Nelson made a journey through the Baja peninsula cataloging the regions unique flora and fauna — J.T. and Todd decided to reconnect with the past by making their own journey through Baja on rented motorcycles. The film parallels the adventures of both Nelson and Goldman and J.T. and Todd, as they make their way through the arid deserts and beautiful landscapes of the Baja. The movie reveals some of the interesting plant and animal species native to the area, as well as sharing a bit on the culture of the people living there.

In the Q&A session that followed, the team mentioned that the documentary cost around $20,000 including the two expeditions to Baja (along with various other expenses). “We did it pretty cheap,” explained J.T. “Originally, we planned to have a chase car that would follow us with supplies. We also wanted to have a third rider, and we wanted Bri to be down there more — but we just had to keep cutting the fat off the trip to keep it within budget. We made it happen.”

One of the motorcycles used in the cross-Baja journey was displayed at the premier.
One of the motorcycles used in the cross-Baja journey was displayed at the premier.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and it’s even more impressive considering the micro-budget the Bruce team was working with. I hope The Devil’s Road continues to get attention as the team starts to share the doc with festivals and other venues. Check out the trailer below.


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Women in Horror – Revenge, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Revenge, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Jen ( played by Matilda Lutz) travels to a remote estate expecting to have some fun with her boyfriend — only to have things go horrifically wrong when his two creepy friends arrive.

Revenge, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Generally, I’m a little wary of rape revenge storylines — which tend to be exploitative about the rape itself. But this movie handles the moment in an interesting way. When Jen is about to be assaulted, the other friend walks through the door — the camera follows him as he draws out of the room and closes the door behind him. Essentially, we become witness to his complicity, doing nothing to stop what’s happening and seeing him turn up the noise on the TV to avoid hearing the sounds of the attack. One of the things the movie does really well, in this way, is show how quickly these men closed ranks to protect each other. Even her boyfriend, takes the side of his friends, offering to pay her off instead of help her.

What follows is Jen’s escape into the desert and fight for survival as the three men attempt to hunt her down and silence her. The movie is not perfect, having some logical flaws her and there — but it it extremely tense as it unfolds with some solid surprises, not so much in the what, but the how. With its cool style, slick music, and copious amounts of bloodshed and violence, Revenge is a wicked flick.


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Women in Horror – Short Films: Adam Peiper, written and directed by Mónica Mateo

Adam Peiper, written and directed by Mónica Mateo

Adam Peiper

Written & Directed By: Mónica Mateo

Length: 16:29 minutes
Genre: Horror/Fantasy

What It’s About: Adam Peiper begins to experience strange changes as he works stuffing envelopes in a strange factory.

Why I Like It: Although set in a single room, the short implies a larger dystopian world in which efficiency is the prime objective no matter the human cost. The purpose of Adam Peiper’s mindless task of licking envelopes and filing them away is irrelevant to the objective. His task becomes even more onerous and desperate as his body begins to horrifically change. These initial changes grow to be increasingly horrifying as they continue, all brilliantly portrayed through well executed physical effects.

Watch It:


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Women in Horror – The Lure, directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska

The Lure, directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska

Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska, The Lure (Córki Dancingu) is a musical horror mermaid story, in which two sisters — Silver and Golden — journey out of the ocean to join a disco troupe in 1980s Poland. As they join the cabaret and explore the human world, Silver becomes fascinated with the bassist and begins to fall in love, much to the disdain of Golden, who has more interest in consuming men than loving them.

This is such a wonderfully strange movie. While it hits the same story beats as a more traditional version of “The Little Mermaid,” The Lure expands the story in surprising and beautiful ways. For example, the relationship between the sisters is powerful, as their love for each other is clear even through their disagreements. They hardly speak to each other (or at all) in the presence of humans, but have a secret silent form of communication demonstrated through movement and internal aquatic sounds that illustrates their deeper relationship and desires.

I also can’t help but be delighted by the mermaids’ tales themselves, which are huge and almost ugly in their eel-like weight. At the same time, the tails beautiful in how they curl around the room and drape over the sides of bathtubs. It’s a brilliant decision on the part of the director and crew to go with something beyond the curvaceous, pretty tails seen in most mermaid movies.

The Lure, directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska

The music, too, is something wonderful. Musicals are hit and miss for me, especially when the songs don’t resonate. But most of the music in this is haunting and lovely, reflecting the siren call of the mermaids. Apparently, the actors performed all the songs live on the set, so what we see in the movie was what was recorded that day (whichis something I learned from April Wolfe and Skye Borgman’s great conversation on the Switchblade Sisters podcast).

The Lure, directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska

There is so much that this movie offers — a coming of age story,  a dive into Polish dance clubs in the 80s, sister relationships, and disco music — all centered on a story about mermaids. It’s fantastic.

Note: This movie pairs well with Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant.


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