Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz
When anyone asks what Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is doing in Paris, she tells them she is “waiting”. The first time we hear this it is out of context for us. We are left to wonder what it is she is waiting for. And though Assayas doesn’t ask us to wait long for the answer, it’s a methodology he applies to Personal Shopper at large; bating us with questions, drawing us into the film’s taciturn narrative, the director waiting in the wings deciding what to reveal and when.
Maureen is recently bereaved having lost her twin brother Lewis to a heart condition they share. Both considered themselves mediums, and before his death they made a pact; whichever of them departed first would send a message to the other. That message is what Maureen is waiting for. At the film’s opening we see her purposefully trying to draw his spirit out, staying the night at his creaky old house; inviting the kind of encounter most horror damsels do their very best to flee. Much of the rest of Maureen’s time is spent as dogs body to a fashion socialite named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). It’s a role and performance very much in keeping with the personal assistant routine Stewart played against Juliette Binoche in Assayas’ last film, the heaven-sent Clouds Of Sils Maria, only here Stewart has full focus and she puts forth yet another bravura performance in a wondrous hot streak.
The question of whether Lewis will or will not communicate with Maureen hangs over much of the picture, even as she starts to receive anonymous text messages. These start to arrive following a startlingly bold close encounter in a film which otherwise suggests it might simply imply rather than show. Indeed, Personal Shopper isn’t coy about where it stands on the afterlife; spirits are seen irrespective of whether the characters they share scenes with are conscious or not. Ghosts exist here. But Assayas waits until after this key event to start the lengthy text message exchange, delivering to the viewer the assumption that Maureen’s conversation partner is communicating with her from the great beyond.
The idea of spectres using modern technology in this way is subtly threaded in earlier when Maureen notes its precedent in her own WiFi enabled research into the subject. The idea of a ghost in the machine isn’t a new one, but Assayas’ film teases out its potential to great success. Much of the middle act of the film takes place wordlessly in the sense that little is spoken, yet it contains the most insistent exchanges of the movie. We sit watching with bated breath to see how Maureen’s provocateur will respond to her just questioning and vice versa. Assayas allows us room for doubt, having exposed us to a potential real-world culprit (or two). The film has been called Hitchockian, and this tag is felt most keenly here. It makes for a refreshingly honest portrayal of travelling alone (so many discarded drinks), but it also nails the trepidation and private captivity text messaging can conjure, regardless of this thrilling, potentially otherworldly element.
But the film that came to my mind most vividly while watching Personal Shopper was Eyes Wide Shut. Though thematically far apart, Assayas’ latest shares the same sense of intimate mystery felt throughout Kubrick’s final feature; a dreamlike dalliance that is happy to wander freely off of the expected course, a sort of waking coma which, when finished, dares the audience to ask if it was all in the protagonist’s mind all along.
There are plenty of unanswered questions here or rather, one suspects, questions answered at an arm’s length from convention. For those who prefer their ghost stories tied up with a neat bow, Personal Shopper may prove frustratingly vague or flighty. In every measure this is an unconventional horror film. Assayas approaches the genre rather like Binoche sitting in the audience of an X-Men film in Clouds Of Sils Maria. There her character chided genre cinema for being preposterous, unrelatable, frivolous. Personal Shopper feels like a direct challenge to her perspective; Assayas retools a classic movie haunting to something more intellectually nourishing than your usual grab bag of aesthetic and auditory jump scares.
The result is a film that is less a spooky theme park ride than it is a poignant and knowing study of the nature of grief. Whether Lewis reveals himself to Maureen or not, he haunts her. She is preoccupied with him, driven to distraction. The experience of losing someone close to you is exceptionally surreal; the identifiable hand holds that shape a person’s life are ruthlessly pulled away, irrationality becomes the commonplace, yet to the outsider all is as it was. This sense of dislocation from reality has been poured delicately into Assayas’ film, and Stewart is his living, breathing vessel.
The film feels at times like an apparition itself; sometimes bold with the viewer, other times barely there. At his most confrontational, Assayas conjures the kind of shock-dread that David Lynch brought to his best work (the sound design in these sequences is supremely effective). The late discovery of a crime scene echoes clearly a similar one in Mulholland Drive, even down to the same sense of disembodied menace. While an earlier sequence in which Maureen breaks a taboo and tries on her employer’s wardrobe has the voyeuristic feel of De Palma in the early 80’s. These nods to other great directors lend a salacious spark to Personal Shopper that is otherwise hard to find. The film is frequently beautiful, always intelligent as it muses on loss, perspective and uncertainty, but it comes frightfully close to slipping through your fingers. Nevertheless, there is much here to pick over and enjoy. For those hungry to participate, Assayas has laid on a high-brow buffet.