by Seamus MulhernLosing a loved one is a selfish process when you think about it. When one first hears that someone close to them has died, all sorts of emotions emerge — heartbreak, anger, fear, grief. It’s a complex and slow process that continues throughout your life. And, yet, during that process… all you can think about is yourself.
It is this process that’s at the heart of Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’s follow-up and spiritual successor to 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Like Clouds, the film stars Kristen Stewart as a woman on the fringes of fame and glamour. This time, her name is Maureen and she’s a medium who is working as a personal shopper; someone who buys clothes for celebrities when they are unable to go out themselves out of fear of being swarmed.
Maureen’s twin brother recently died of a heart attack caused by a condition that she was also born with. So, for the time being, Maureen is working in Paris while trying to contact her brother in the afterlife. That’s the general set-up, but what begins as a disappointingly conventional first act, at least, by the standards of Assayas’ past work, quickly turns into one of the most engaging and thought-provoking psychological thrillers of recent memory. While the first act spends an unfortunate amount of time clumsily setting up various plot threads, the second act takes an intriguing turn for the surreal and, dare I say, Lynchian.
It’s hard to think of a film in Kristen Stewart’s filmography where she is more suited for the role. Stewart beautifully depicts a quiet anxiety slowly bubbling to the surface throughout the course of the narrative. Her subtle and nuanced performance lends itself well to Assayas’s direction. Once again, Assayas has proven himself as a master of realism. Every scene seems to capture the beauty of its particular setting, from the controlled chaos of the Parisian streets to the subdued and tense muteness of an old, empty estate.
Similarly to Clouds, Assayas’s fascination with technology permeates Personal Shopper. Throughout the film, Maureen is on her phone so much that it essentially becomes a character of its own, heightening the drama and tension of a moment whenever it gets the chance. The attention to detail adds to the immersion, as the manner in which characters operate their phones and various devices is done in a believable way that lends to the realism of the story.
But the attention to detail doesn’t stop at technology. Aspects such as hair and makeup do an exquisite job representing the emotional state of Stewart’s character. When shy and reserved, her hair is pulled back. When engaging in dangerous or risky activity, it slinks down the front of her face. When she’s on the edge of panic or an emotional breakdown, it’s wild and unkempt.
All of these details have a singular purpose: to help us understand the character. Because, even though it’s a ghost story (and, at times, a horror film), it’s ultimately a story about personal growth. Maureen may be trying to communicate with her brother, but, in a way, she’s trying to communicate with herself, deciding whether to process her brother’s death or to deal with her dissatisfaction with her own life. It’s about how dealing with death is just another part of dealing with yourself.
At its best, Personal Shopper is the cinematic equivalent of David Bowie’s later works. It’s complex, metaphorical and inaccessible, but it’s also haunting, beautiful, intimate, and memorable. Actually, memorable doesn’t properly describe it. It stays with you. It lingers. Like Maureen, we, as an audience, are left to ponder the ghosts of the past, the fears of the future, and what it all might mean for us.
4 out of 5 stars