As beautiful as Olivier Assayas’ films appear, they are certainly enigmatic. The filmmaker is not interested in a world that is clear, explicable, cut, and dried. It is intentional that his viewers leave with questions about what was real or imagined, and whether there can ever be a clear line between the two. In Personal Shopper, he dives into the world of ghosts and spiritualism, and Assayas’ dreamy quasi-reality perfectly surrounds such a subject.
Kristin Stewart appears to us first not as a “personal shopper,” but as a grieving sister trying to connect with her brother’s ghost. The two had a deal that whoever died first would contact the other from the afterlife. That is, if there is an afterlife at all; Stewart’s Maureen never believed in it as strongly as her brother. Now that she finds herself alone as an American expatriate in Paris, she desperately waits for some kind of closure via a sign from beyond the grave.
The film is couched in this theme, but many others run strongly through it – Maureen makes her living shopping for high-end fashion model Kyra (Nora von Waldstӓtten) whom she despises and almost never sees. She’s forbidden to ever try on any of Kyra’s clothes, even though she is the same size, and sellers often offer her the chance. Tired and hopeless in her own identity, Maureen is tempted to take on Kyra’s, as she makes deals for her clothes and jewelry, and comes and goes to her apartment freely.
A third thread begins with mysterious text messages that Maureen receives, and her suspicion that they may be supernatural. In the wake of her brother’s death, she has explored spiritualism, and comes to see more and more ways the spirit world seems to be overlapping with hers. The text messages are alternatively playful and threatening. At a point, Maureen’s life begins to revolve around them. The tension leads to a gruesome twist and an ending that, unsurprisingly, leaves more questions than answers.
Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is as beautiful as viewers might expect after such films as Swimming Pool, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Assayas’ own Clouds of Sils Maria. Combined with some barely-there computer generated effects, the film’s visual quality is consistent with (or perhaps helps create) the story’s haunting, spooky feeling. Kristin Stewart takes on a mammoth role in Maureen. Not only does she deal with complex emotions and deep character beats, she is also on screen for practically every scene of the movie. Her arc does leave something to be desired (up until the last 15 minutes at least), but the performance is steady throughout.
The most arresting aspects of Personal Shopper are thematic. First, there is the world of spiritualism. Assayas raises many questions about the supernatural, and how it interacts with our world. He seems to put stock in it, but is it merely for the purposes of this story? We can read some events as figments of Maureen’s imagination or projections of her subconscious, but arguably not all of them. And if Maureen is able to contact spirits at all (or vice versa) where do they come from? Is her brother contacting her, or could it be someone/something else? How would she know? She must mistrust any messages from beyond, not only because they may be imagined (she was the skeptic to her brother’s true believer, after all) but because she has no reason to believe that if the spirits are genuine, they will be truthful with her. The “horror” inherent in all of this is an intellectual one, distinct from the visceral horror more common in cinema’s ghost stories.
Then we must consider Maureen’s approach to identity. Her job as Kyra’s shopper provides her with no fulfillment, even though it brings her a glimpse of “the good life.” Why is she tempted to try on that world? What does she gain by slipping into Kyra’s identity? Or, conversely, what does she lose by disobeying her boss’s rules and secretly taking a walk in her shoes? It could be a welcome escape from her grief-stricken, self-imposed exile. When the mysterious text messages encourage her to become Kyra, she acknowledges that she’s often had a desire to do so. The stranger may be guiding her to what she truly wants, or tempting her towards destruction – maybe both.
While Personal Shopper may frustrate some viewers who expect clearer answers from their cinema, it certainly has much to offer regardless. Besides the intellectual stimulation (and some great topics for coffee shop talk), there is effective horror in an unexpected way, and a strikingly beautiful visual palette.