For a film as surprisingly dense and multi-faceted as Personal Shopper, it is first important to consider exactly what comprises the work. It is at once a subtle exploration of grief and a glimpse into the unknown, a thriller at times bordering on horror and a relentlessly lowkey experience that borders on parodying the cliches of a normal viewer’s notion of a French arthouse film, and a movie that both embraces and rejects what ultimately becomes the film’s driving principle: spiritualism. Yet it manages to reconcile these differences to some degree or another, and the credit must be given to two incredibly well-matched collaborators: director and writer Olivier Assayas and his new muse Kristen Stewart.
It should be noted that this is Assayas’s second film with Stewart, following his previous film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). There, Stewart played the assistant and essential foil to Juliette Binoche’s veteran actress, but in this movie she stands alone, quite literally by herself for much of the narrative. Her character is Maureen, a personal shopper living in Paris for a diva model named Kyra who is often heard (through handwritten notes) but only seen in one short sequence. Maureen is also an amateur medium, introduced in the opening minutes wandering the home of her recently deceased twin brother in the hopes of receiving a sign from the other side.
This opening sets up expectations that Personal Shopper alternatively upholds and subverts throughout. On the one hand, this paranormal aspect recurs at fairly regular intervals and its presence can be deeply felt throughout. There are bravura sequences that take place in the house, including one that actually involves an uncanny CGI ghost (pointedly not Maureen’s brother), but there are also strange digressions related to the supernatural: the abstract work and possible connections to spirits of Hilma af Klint are brought up in the first half and even shown in a video, and there is an incredibly jarring but effective sidetracking to séances conducted by Victor Hugo, complete with a “TV movie” made by Assayas in black and white in a 4:3 aspect ratio, a stark contrast to the film proper’s ultra-wide 2.35:1, a tangent that pays off dividends in the movie’s epilogue.
At the same time, it is difficult to say that the ghost story aspect and the attached dissection of grief in the form of Maureen is the true body of Personal Shopper. For one, there is the eponymous job that Maureen begrudgingly but efficiently performs throughout, which consists of shuttling various items of clothing and accessories by motorcycle and train from boutique brands like Cartier to her client’s trendy apartment. There is very clearly something to be said about the somewhat functional way that these parts of the film are portrayed, a sort of modern disaffection that contrasts with Maureen’s own apartment, which is ever-so-slightly dingy but considerably cozier than the cold locales she otherwise frequents.
And then there is the the unknown texter. After the aforementioned ghost encounter, as Maureen boards a train to London as part of her job, she begins receiving anonymous texts from an unknown number that seem overtly ominous. This begins an astonishingly impressive “wordless” sequence that consists solely of Maureen moving through train cars and looking at her phone, taunted by the vibration buzz that threatens a new text filled with ambiguous but menacing intentions, interrogating her mentally and almost physically to an alarming degree. Stewart is, as expected, exceptional throughout, managing to convey a wide range of understated emotions within her trademark variant of underacted naturalism, but she is at her best in these texting scenes, as her thumbs fidget restlessly as she types out responses and waits for the next question or piece of information and her face is nerve-wracked within a mostly implacable mask. Assayas responds in kind, fixing his camera on her throughout in both long tracking shots that stay on a frontal view even as her face moves in and out of shadow and short shots that fade-out into the next scene, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
What makes Personal Shopper feel in some ways perverse is how it comes close to fusing all of these disparate elements together while hinting at even more, but ultimately refusing to truly reconcile them. For instance, there is the hint of the persona swap a la Clouds of Sils Maria to a certain extent (Maureen puts on her employer’s clothes at the behest of the unknown texter, a forbidden act), but this clearly never comes to full fruition. There is, even more daringly, the identity of the texter, which is never resolved in a satisfying way, even after a truly frightening climax that begins in shocking fashion and ends on a note that doesn’t feel quite like a resolution. Of course, there are also little moments that deliberately feel out of place: a Skype call between Maureen and her boyfriend that is rendering horrifying by a close-up on the pixilated, buffering face of the boyfriend, an odd cut here and there, and of course that CGI ghost. This blatantly supernatural element, which comes as a fright to the generally skeptical Maureen, is echoed in the remarkable epilogue that continues long after what would be reasonably expected. It is the closest Personal Shopper or Stewart comes to outright emotion, but the ambiguity is always preserved and bolstered with each development in that incredible last scene, in each beat. That is the most moving, provocative aspect of the film: its consistency of rhythm (if not content) to the end.