Don’t the title mislead you—Personal Shopper isn’t a rom com starring Isla Fischer or Kate Hudson. In fact, it’s about as far from that as it can get. Try “French Kristen Stewart ghost movie,” and you’ll be more on track.
Director Olivier Assayas revisits parts of the premise of his 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria; once again, Stewart plays an aid to the rich and famous. But this time, she’s “Maureen”, the focus of the film, a personal shopper for a difficult international model and fashion icon called Kyra. Maureen spends her days zooming from one location to another on her moped, gathering accessories and picking up reserved gowns—a vintage belt here, some Cartier diamonds there. Most of the time, she ends up leaving these items in Kyra’s empty apartment, pops a beer, and lingers briefly in the quiet spaciousness before returning to her own dark and cluttered studio.
But there’s more keeping Maureen in Paris than a job she barely tolerates. Paris is where her twin brother, Lewis, used to live, and also where he recently died. The twins shared the same heart deformity that makes physical exertion or strong emotion—so, living—potentially dangerous. They also both believe themselves to be mediums (that is, channels of communication for the spirit world), which is why they made an oath “that whoever died first would send the other a sign.” Three months have passed, and Maureen is still waiting. She spends the night alone in Lewis’ old house, hoping for contact, but all the signs she receives are either inconclusive or from another spirit entirely. She’s lonely, grief-stricken, and unsure about what to do next. So when she starts receiving anonymous text messages from someone who seems to know a creepy amount about her life and whereabouts, she really starts to unravel.
Personal Shopper is a bit of a struggle to unpack, because at times it seems intentionally opaque. (If you like films with resolution, this isn’t the movie for you). There are more than a few “log me away for later” details that never actually amount to anything. This is a great tactic for combatting predictability, but also for frustrating your audience. That said, it’s a testament to Assayas’ mastery of creating suspense that I hungered for answers so badly. My own jumpy restlessness built as Stewart’s did, until we were both regarding every stranger and quotidian incident as sinister or threatening.
Stewart, who first entered most people’s consciousness as Bella Swan in the Twilight films, is one of those actresses whose abilities have often been slapped with a big old “inconclusive” sticker. That is, regarding her talents, many critics’ stance is that the jury is still out (and they’re often deeply divided about the merit of the same performance). Stewart has a fidgety, blinking awkwardness that is pervasive both on and off screen. As Maureen, her mannerisms are simultaneously natural and affected, as if she suddenly becomes aware of each gesture halfway through making it. At times, watching Stewart is like watching someone play Charades who’s been tasked with acting out “acting”, which I mean as less of an insult than it sounds. Because underneath all that effort is a discomfort so innate that it shows despite her best efforts to hide it. The vulnerability that seeps out is arresting in its acuteness, and is especially affecting from someone stricken by grief.
And thank goodness—Stewart’s in every scene, and often alone, so it’s essential that we find her compelling. Both her character and her performance exude a “don’t watch me” admonition that makes us all the more eager to disobey. When Maureen herself starts “disobeying” by trying on her employer’s clothes, even going so far as to wear her underwear and sleep in her bed, we feel complicit in her naughtiness. Maureen, usually grungy and androgynous, transforms into someone sexual and mysterious when she dons Kyra’s designer duds. The outlines of her identity are sharpest when she’s literally wearing the shoes of another. (Thematically at least, there are whiffs of both Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Bergman’s Persona as influences.) This is a woman who—recently halved by the death of her twin—is scrambling desperately for something to make her feel whole. Actions that would otherwise have us scratching our heads (like opening up to a potentially dangerous stranger, or staying alone in a house that’s clearly unsafe) are rendered understandable, albeit unwise.
In Personal Shopper, Assayas is clearly more concerned with creating a mood than fleshing out the narrative, and the one he creates is certainly pervasive. Unlike with many horror movies or ghost stories, the feelings of unease are not confined to a single locale. No haunted house can contain Maureen’s hauntedness, and whatever specter stalks her is clearly a mobile one. Maureen isn’t any safer in London than in Paris, nor more protected when in public versus private. If there’s any sort of tangible statement being made by Personal Shopper, it’s that you can’t outrun ghosts, especially when they’re your own. Unfortunately, when the credits rolled, I felt a little like a dissatisfied lover whose partner, adept at foreplay, rolled over minutes before climax and said “Sorry, you’re on your own.” But maybe that’s what Assayas wants us to do—finish the work ourselves.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.