Published on March 24th, 2017 | by Dan Nicholls0
Personal Shopper is the new film from Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart (after Clouds of Sils Maria). It’s a slowish, but smart, personal ghost story.
The new film Personal Shopper from acclaimed writer-director Olivier Assayas defies easy categorization. On one hand it’s a slice-of-life picture about a woman whose job is to buy clothes in fancy shops for her famous and wealthy client. It’s also an affecting drama about grief and processing the loss of a loved one, not unlike the themes of the Oscar-lauded Manchester by the Sea. And it’s also a ghost story. Like, actual ghosts/spectres/spirits. With ectoplasm and haunted house shocks and thrills and shit.
All these distinct identities get rolled into one compelling, confounding film that marks another solid notch in the teaming of Assayas and his leading lady Kristen Stewart following the excellent Clouds of Sils Maria.
Maureen (Stewart) spends her days as the lapdog of a Parisian model named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Kyra’s too busy globetrotting and making appearances at fashion shows to select her own wardrobe so she has Maureen do it. Zipping around on her scooter across Paris in search of lavish gowns and necklaces, Maureen seems to neither love nor hate her means of employment. But her nights spent attempting to communicate with the spirit of her recently deceased brother informs us of the quiet discomfort underneath her skin.
Maureen is also a medium, you see. She can get readings from any room or object but her holy grail is finding a true portal to communicate with the other side. Her dead twin brother, Lewis, was also a medium. A long time ago the siblings made a pact that whomever passed first would send a message to the other from beyond the grave. Months after Lewis’ death Maureen is still unable to find the peace she seeks. But a few unexplainable encounters provide her with enough hope to dig deeper into the afterlife.
Assayas keeps us at arms distance from Maureen, never fully letting us in her mind despite the reactions we observe from the ghosts she encounters and the creep who’s stalking her. Indeed, Maureen seems unfazed by most of the ups and downs of her life – it’s almost like she’s just going through the motions until she’s able to find the peace she seeks.
While some might find this coldness distancing, others will be captivated by it. Compositions are uniformly atmospheric and the sound design serves the otherworldly aspects of the story’s nature in an extremely effective but unobtrusive manner. The production design feels specifically authentic, aided in large part by its European locales and the attention paid to the elegant costuming.
The side characters aren’t really developed and are only around to extract Maureen’s subtext into text. Their appearances and functions within the story aren’t too much of a concerning issue because Personal Shopper is essentially a one-woman character piece anchored by a committed Stewart. The actress allows herself to go to places that her famous Twilight saga would’ve never allowed her to explore.
An outright art-house supernatural story, Personal Shopper is probably going to lose a lot of people in its molasses pacing and relative lack of sensationalism. Even those who approach the film with an open mind may require some Googling to make sense of some major story points (I know I certainly did). Perhaps time will determine that Personal Shopper doesn’t quite lurk in the darkness of your subconscious where the scariest stuff can be found but its thoughtful themes might resonate later as we all inch towards our inevitable ends.
Even if one can’t exactly guarantee a successful and entertaining night out with Personal Shopper it’s still easy to recommend as a tastefully produced alternative viewpoint on some familiar territory. Some might find it spellbinding; others may nap for an hour and three quarters. All the same, Assayas and Stewart have combined forces to create another work that will quietly creep up on select audiences for years to come.