Ghosts of the dead tend to haunt the living, hovering above probably more than any sane person would ever care admit to believing. Heck, I’m guilty of searching for signs and messages my deceased mother might be trying to send me through films (ABOUT TIME) or through the iconography printed across holiday-themed flannel sheets sold at Sears (true storeh). That sentiment lays the foundation for writer-director Olivier Assayas’ treatise on grief, PERSONAL SHOPPER. Even though we’re relegated to the role of passive audience member, we’re sent on a journey led by a bewitching guide – our avatar for the emotionally tumultuous adventure ahead. This is a powerfully connective ghost story that doubles as Assayas’ most ambitious undertaking yet, blending elements of suspense, intrigue, intimacy, gore, and batshit crazy into the mundanity of daily existence. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those it finds a home with, it will hold fast with deeply personal resonance.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a twenty-something medium suffering from the fairly recent loss of her twin brother Lewis. She’s numb from the pain, succumbing to the overpowering sense of grief. She’s searching for signs from him, spending nights at the house he shared with his widow Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), watching YouTube videos about a fellow medium, hoping she’ll tap into something bigger, but it’s a fruitless pursuit. Her day job as a personal shopper for tyrannical socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) is like cutting herself just to feel something. Maureen is immune to fun and happiness, shunning her boyfriend (Ty Olwin) and shopping joylessly in overpriced Parisian boutiques. Her world upends when, on one particular visit to Lewis’ escrow’d chateau, Maureen witnesses a female spirit barf ectoplasm (like a scene out of either version of GHOSTBUSTERS). As she attempts to decipher the spirit’s intent (malevolent or whatnot), she receives a series of harassing texts – messages encouraging her to engage in the verboten. Maureen embraces the kink of it all (a self-destruction of haphazard sorts) – well, until something shocking occurs. Are these messages from the beyond or from an earthly being? Are these two things even related?
Much like they did in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, Assayas and Stewart have delicately crafted an intriguing heroine to latch onto – one we hope finds catharsis. Because of her loss, the deep pain of losing a twin sibling, Maureen’s trapped in an emotionally vegetative state, lost in her own life. She’s been set adrift as her tether is gone. The profundity of these true-to-life feelings is what this film trades in. This is an emotionally saturated tableau drawn by two artists in their prime. Stewart’s keen ability to play her character with such raw, unfiltered vulnerability and intelligence is absolutely riveting. Her loneliness springs from a place of authority – or at least I buy its authentic nature. She gives a haunting, internalized performance that’s of value.
That’s not to say this is all perfection. Watching Stewart send and receive texts isn’t shown with the same ingenuity and energy of most studio films (think NON-STOP, FAULT IN OUR STARS, DISCONNECT, THE DUFF). Text doesn’t appear on screen in any creative fashion, assuming because this is an indie ART film. It’s cutaways to the texts on the phone screen versus superimposed over images of the actor – showing us action and reaction in the same frame. This choice also slows down narrative momentum and its subsequent impact. Some of the bonkers minutia isn’t resolved effortlessly. Listen, I get masturbating in her boss’ bed (it’s a power play!) and what the ghost barf represents (icky feelings), but there’s only so much ART we can interpret clearly. What was the deal with that manifesting ghost? Why was it important to Maureen that those leather pants get returned if Kyra could easily afford them? Why didn’t she ever press for more details from her mystery texter or at least text back, “new phone who dis?”
That said, I still loved this film because of its ambitious spirit – not despite of it. Assayas has made an existential horror thriller about grief, murder and shopping. It’s couture cinema!
PERSONAL SHOPPER opens on March 10.