It’s rational to think that one hasn’t fully matured as a human until they’ve come to understand death. No matter how much one has been told about the taxing toll of losing a loved one throughout their life, it’s really impossible to know what grief feels like until you’ve actually experienced it. The turmoil and soul-crushing despair that one must go through isn’t comparable to anything else in life, and that’s often the case for why ghost stories tend to be so personal yet universal. For that reason Personal Shopper, the new supernatural thriller from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, finds comfortable footing in a semi-familiar template while also refusing to give into clichés.
The film’s story is about Maureen (Kristen Stewart), an American working in Paris as a personal shopper for a wealthy celebrity. Currently struggling after the death of her twin brother Lewis (from an ailment that she also possesses), Maureen tries using her background as a medium to see if she can communicate with her brother from the hereafter. Close while alive, the two siblings had made a pact that they would send each other a sign if either one of them died. After several occurrences where she interacts with spirits, she begins to receive anonymous text messages, which heightens both her fear and hope of reaching out to Lewis again.
It’s inarguably the case that Personal Shopper has a lot in common with Olivier Assayas’s last movie, The Clouds of Sils Maria. Aside from that they both star Kristen Stewart, both films are layered and express their themes through ambiguity and intentional plot holes. Throughout Personal Shopper, Assayas teases the viewer with red herrings and unobserved plot points that ask for viewers to meet the film on its own terms.
Many will find it frustrating—especially general audiences that just wanted to see something “scary”—but it makes the film’s introspections all the richer. There are unexpected plot developments for sure, and maybe even some reveals that could constitute as “twists,” but Personal Shopper’s strongest dynamics are more tickling than piercing.
Yet, the film is undoubtedly suspenseful despite being fairly existential, and Olivier Assayas finds intensity through the most subtle of devices. Or, perhaps on the contrary, he found it through using the least subtle device. Much of the film’s narrative is driven through action involving Maureen’s smart phone, which could have made for rather drab momentum, but instead it’s captured in a way that’s often astonishing. The scenes where Maureen converses with her anonymous caller through instant messaging are more unpredictable and better choreographed than the scenes where she makes physical contact with spirits, and it’s nigh unbelievable to think that Assayas is able to exert such menace from close-up shots on a phone screen.
Aside from the thriller elements, Olivier Assayas also uses the smart phone to communicate what kind of a person Maureen really is—or at least the state she is going through. Driven to find her brother by any means necessary, she spends her available time using her phone to access content that might aid her in communicating with the dead, such as looking at paintings from an artist that claimed to have been a medium or watching a movie that involves a séance.
It’s fairly vague to ascertain if the movie is using this attention on a popular technology to make a comment on our information age, but Maureen’s findings prove cyclical. Similar artwork to that of the paintings can be seen in hallway décor later on in the film, and the methods used for communicating with the dead in the séance return when Maureen has another ghostly encounter near the end. It’ll certainly take the average viewer days to wrap their head around the enigmatic aura of it all, as the ominous nature of the film lingers, especially when digested as a whole.
At 26-years old, Kristen Stewart has been a Hollywood starlet for more than half her life now, having been only 12 years old upon the release of Panic Room. But Olivier Assayas has found a role for her in Personal Shopper that really encapsulates her attributes in a way that other films have just hinted at.
While certainly possessing a unique feminine beauty, Stewart has received a lot of attention for her tomboyish looks, which are acknowledged here. She’s dressed up a bit like an action star for much of the movie, as she does wear leather jackets, ride a motorcycle, and smoke cigarettes. Quite in contrast to what she does for a living, which entails trying on dresses and buying items for wealthy people that are otherwise too busy to do so.
In one exceptional sequence in which Maureen decides to have an unsolicited dressing in her employer’s garments after being coaxed by her anonymous caller, we see Stewart at her most naked (in more than one sense of the word) and intoxicating manner. It’s a lengthy scene where Stewart puts together an elegant dress as a soothing old French vinyl plays, all before reaching a shocking (yet non-bombastic) climax.
Stewart also expresses a nuance in this film that other directors wouldn’t allow from her. She finds a way to communicate her character’s grief through unorthodox methods. Sure, the character has her crying scenes, but they’re usually relegated to just a tear drop. It’s more in how Maureen speaks, which is morose but with occasional spots of quirkiness that suggests the character really yearns to break out of her dismal position or even find it easy to dismiss. Featured in almost every scene of Personal Shopper—and featuring perhaps the most difficult script of any film she’s previously worked in—the film must have been a challenge for Stewart. But, thankfully, she turned in her best performance to date.
Initially greeted with a fairly divisive response upon its premiere at Cannes last spring, Personal Shopper has received stronger reviews upon its stateside release. This is likely due to the fact that the film calls for patience in understanding its themes, but the challenges prove more rewarding than frustrating.
Like several other great French filmmakers before him (i.e. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, etc.), Olivier Assayas has a background as a film critic, and his understanding of the cinematic language has caused him to mold an elusive aesthetic that’s all his own. Deceptive, atmospheric, and at times even a bit Hitchcockian, Personal Shopper is a simply fascinating film and an intrinsic collaboration between two artists that are working at the height of their prowess.
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.