Film Review: Personal Shopper

A wary Kristen Stewart sidewinds through Olivier Assayas’ fascinating oddity about a haunted young woman trying to connect with the spirit of her dead twin brother.
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The year is young still, but you probably won’t see a wiser, more headlong dive into the world of high fashion and celebrity than Olivier Assayas’ slippery, darkly glamorous Personal Shopper. With a cool and yet intimate approach, Assayas shows a deeper awareness of the seductive, boundary- and identity-blurring compromises than other more surface-sailing chroniclers of the beautiful life like Nicolas Winding Refn or Sofia Coppola. He also manages to string a taut thread of tension through the unlikeliest of narratives for this generally straightforward filmmaker to tackle: a ghost story.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a young American living in Paris and working as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a celebrity of some vague renown. Their interactions are brief and specious, usually relegated to an unseen Kyra speaking at Maureen from a distant room (leave the clothes; money’s on the table). Diffident and private, Maureen is nevertheless highly efficient at what she does. This even though you imagine that she’s not exactly proud of being able to tell shopgirls which outfits to select for her boss—her not-too-carefully grunge attire and her constant sketching speak more to an art student who’s fallen into a career by accident than somebody who’s craved the glamorous life.

All the above might make you think that the film is an extension of Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Stewart also played a vaguely gloomy aide to a famous woman. But instead of that story’s Bergman psychosexual tensions, here Assayas is dipping into quasi-Hitchcockian chills. Because Maureen is haunted, not metaphorically but literally. She is in mourning over the recent death of her twin brother Lewis, but not quite accepting it. When not zipping around Paris on her scooter or riding the Eurostar, she’s conducting solo séances and trying to speak with Lewis. The long, dark stretches in a gloomy old mansion are strung out for maximum effect, as is a later scene in a sunbaked room in remote Oman; her otherworldly explorations aren’t confined to spook-friendly settings.

Running parallel to Maureen’s increasingly frightened metaphysical seekings, Assayas layers in more corporeal threats: ominous text messages that suggest either communication from the hereafter or a real-life stalker, and an unexpected murder. Because she lives such a solitary existence already, the multiplication of threats quickly threatens to drown Maureen in anxious terror. Still, holding herself together by that thin but steel-like reed of will that gives so many of Stewart’s frequently mopey characters such resonance, Maureen keeps on trying to contact Lewis.

You wouldn’t think that slapping these two worlds, the fashion-world thriller and the emotional ghost story, together would result in anything but an ungainly mess. But while Personal Shopper isn’t quite up to the level of Assayas’ greatest—this is no Summer Hours or Carlos—it makes far more sense in the execution than it does in the explanation. Some of the set-pieces that Assayas constructs here, particularly a deceptively quiet scene between Maureen and Kyra’s boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) which practically pulsates with threat, are some of the best work he’s ever done.

Almost more striking are the scenes where nothing in particular seems to be happening except Maureen trying on the clothes she’s selecting for Kyra. She isn’t lingering over the clothes but curious, briskly appraising herself as an entirely different person in the chic outfits. It isn’t greed in her eyes but curiosity and more than a little loneliness. Since Maureen seems unable to push on in her current life without Lewis there, it’s as though she’s looking for a different existence entirely. In this context, fame and fashion are just more ghosts to chase.

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