Personal Shopper is the second collaboration between Kristen Stewart and versatile and gifted French director Olivier Assayas. It’s an ambitious mixture of art film, ghost story and fetishistic psychological thriller that bitterly divided audiences at Cannes. Did it deserve the heckling, or, as in the case of Neon Demon, were its vocal nay-sayers just being unadventurous clods?
Stewart plays Maureen, a glacially cool expatriate living in Paris and earning a crust as the personal shopper of a high-profile model. You can probably imagine worse ways of paying the bills, but Maureen hates the gig. In her private life she is a medium, or a person who believes they can communicate with the spirits of the dead. Her twin brother, also a medium, died a few months previously, and Maureen waits in Paris in the hope of receiving some kind of communique from her deceased sibling. Maureen does begin to receive mysterious messages of a kind: a series of anonymous text messages initiates a bizarre relationship in which she explores the hidden aspects of her identity.
Personal Shopper is literally stuffed with ideas, and plays like three very different films interlapping. When viewing Maureen’s profession, it feels very much like one of Sofia Coppola’s coolly detached studies of disaffection among the privileged and beautiful. In psychological thriller mode, it explores the kind of territory Brian DePalma or Dario Argento would have had a lot of fun with in their 70s/80s primes. It is, however, in dealing with Maureen’s relationship with the afterlife and the supernatural that the film is at its weakest.
Here, Personal Shopper strains for the kind of spiritual earnestness you find in Peter Weir’s Fearless, but never really achieves that film’s emotional intensity. Assayas makes the strikingly odd decision to represent the supernatural in a very explicit and unambiguous fashion, and the CGI ghosts and levitating glasses sit very uncomfortably with the film’s overall tone and atmosphere. You could argue that this is part of Personal Shopper‘s canny frustration of genre expectation, but it felt to me on a first viewing like a fundamental miscalculation.
Flaws aside, however, Personal Shopper still casts quite a lingering and intriguing spell. Stewart is fine actress who also possesses that indefinable quality that makes us watch the actor intently even while they’re not doing anything of particular consequence. Her aloof, slightly punkish cool makes her an ideal muse for Assayas, a cerebral and meticulous film-maker whose mastery of mood and tone is always distant and low-key.
Personal Shopper is built around a juxtaposition of two worlds which at first appears highly incongruous: the table-tapping séance of the 18th century spiritualist movement, with the obtrusive omnipresence of the smart phone in the 21st century. Modern communication technology, however, has ushered us into a world of spooky action at a distance which is not unlike that imagined by the spiritualists. We now take the instantaneous projection of voices, thoughts and images across space for granted; the difference, of course, is that the people who we are interacting with are alive, or so we hope. Yet when technology translates our physical experiences into an intangible code, and can cloak our identities behind spectral boxes of text, interaction can become very ghostly indeed. In Personal Shopper, technology is a demon lover that both threatens Maureen, and offers her an opportunity for confessional honesty and playful self-discovery.