[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the New York Film Festival; Personal Shopper enters limited release this weekend]
Kristen Stewart played an assistant to an older movie star in Olivier Assayas’ last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, wherein she proved that she could more than hold her own against Juliette Binoche, she built a believably confusing friendship-mentor chemistry battle with one of France’s all time greats. For her reteam with Assayas in Personal Shopper, Stewart has to hold our attention on screen almost entirely alone—acting opposite a ghost, a cell phone, or in an empty apartment—and she’s absolutely brilliant. Personal Shopper has been a divisive love it or hate it film ever since it premiered at Cannes last year (although it did pick up the Best Director prize) and it is the type of film that’d be easy to shoot holes in if you want concrete answers by the end, but that’d be like shooting holes in a hat, because this is a film about how we only receive the answers we’re looking for.
I didn’t leave Personal Shopper loving it, but as I let the narrative kick around in my head throughout the day, sending emails and chats to coworkers despite being surrounded by a newsroom of people, and as I thought more about its critique of modern communication, I began to love it. This is the type of film that follows a character who’s looking for answers in the spiritual world and in the real world and finding only that we don’t have the proper tools to communicate, we just receive information and interpret it however we’d like to at that time.
Stewart is Maureen, a medium who’s relocated to Paris to try and make contact with her twin brother who recently passed away from a rare heart complication, in an old gothic house. Her brother’s widow (Sigrid Bouaziz) has asked her to sleep over in the abandoned house in order to make contact, something the siblings promised to do for the other from whomever died first. In between nights of creaky floorboards and electrical current visages of the wrong ghost, Maureen is a personal shopper for a high profile model and socialite. Her boss is as present as a ghost, preferring to leave voicemails and notes and providing Maureen with the key to her apartment to leave the expensive gowns and collect an envelope of money without ever having to interact face to face. Her boss is always late for photo shoots and Maureen is requested to be a stand in, it’s her runs to her brother’s estate that keep her from staying on the set until her employer arrives. We do confirm her existence by meeting her once for a brief moment before Maureen is requested to leave.
After Maureen is convinced that she’s awoken a malevolent spirit that wasn’t her brother she begins receiving anonymous text messages from an unknown person. Being that Maureen’s day to day life is so isolating, receiving direction from her boss only via voicemail and notes, waiting for hours for contact from a ghost and occasionally skype-ing with her boyfriend who’s working in Oman, the inquisitive and probing texts are the most immediate forms of communication she’s receiving. The frozen ellipses of someone else’s typing, the passive aggressive read receipt, the frequency of someone who’s attempting to engage her. Yes, there is a 10-minute plus section of text messages and waiting for more text messages, but Assayas films each send/receive with the same energy that we feel in those moments when we’ve all considered it life and death if someone responds or not.
Emboldened by a secret messaging partner, Maureen begins to take some risks with her employer—occasionally wearing her clothes, sleeping overnight when she knows her boss is not going to return. It might seem like her sequin gown evenings and her ghost rousing evenings might not fit into the same movie, but Personal Shopper is about all types of ghosts: how many people are working remotely and distantly with ghosts, vanishing on communication unless it fills their need at a moment, and how our memories of people are stronger than our day to day connections. But Maureen’s crossing over into the skin of her boss is also an act of ghosting, she nary leaves a trace of herself.
Assayas and Stewart deftly weave these multiple threads of empty spiritual pursuits and create a patchwork of loneliness that’s appropriate, for indeed, Maureen is steeped in grief over not only her dead brother but her inability to connect with him like he swore she’d be able to do. Now I obviously can’t talk about the ending but I can say that I was initially disappointed by it and then came around to it. It doesn’t resolve anything, but that is Assayas’ point. Pay attention to the questions that Maureen asks of the spirit and how the responses are the same to oppositional questions. If she had stopped after getting the answer she wanted, she could have moved on, but it also would’ve been false because she didn’t ask the right question. There are a few spooky moments in Personal Shopper but the spookiest thread is how we attempt to manipulate communication to get our desired result.