Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Rated R. 105 minutes. 2017.
We are accustomed to filmmakers dealing with ghosts in a certain way in the movies. Usually, it’s a spectral being whose existence within the plot is more important than the how or why of what brought it to the point of being a ghost. The human that may or may not have been is rarely a consideration, unless the film has more important matters on its mind than how to cater to a genre or its target audience. In the worst cases, usually speaking, the being is computer-generated in nature, swooping across or toward the camera while a high-pitched shriek or piteous moan plays on the soundtrack. In the best cases, the being is still technically at the mercy of a plot that requires it to be an object of fright. It takes a special kind of treatment to avoid the potential pitfall of a genre effort and approach the presence of a ghost as something that is elemental.
Personal Shopper is unique in that the ghosts central to our heroine’s story are not just tools of the plot. Writer/director Olivier Assayas is keenly aware of the delicate balancing act that he performs here. There are unnerving scenes of communication between the protagonist and someone/something on the other side of that invisible veil of death, but the dead here rarely communicate through theatrical means, such as the slamming of doors or the defusing of candles that are our only source of light. There is an extended sequence in which such things take place, but as the film progresses and shows us the other means of spectral communication, we realize that an old house with a creaky foundation might only be a vessel for that particular spirit.
The living visitor to said house is Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a clairvoyant whose twin brother died years ago in that very place, victim of the genetic malformation of the heart that led to a cardiac event. Maureen has the same malformation, and although the doctor assures her that, health-wise, she’s in the clear for now, it’s obviously a source of fear for her. In her day job, Maureen is the personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a diva whose modeling career has become so consuming of her time that her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) is resentful and Maureen must choose and purchase clothing for the events she attends. Her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin) is on the other side of the world installing security features for a corporation and the process could take months. For both, the work is unfulfilling, and each simply wants to be with the other.
Maureen, though, has an important goal to see through: Her clairvoyance was a gift shared by her brother, and one of their promises to each other was for each to send the other a sign from the afterlife that he or she was at peace. Maureen feels she has waited in vain for this sign, until she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number. The conversations are innocuous, at first, though strangely philosophical: The person or presence on the other side of the phone interrogates her about her deepest nature, eventually causing her to question it. Assayas deftly frames all of this as a puzzle for the viewer to solve. Stewart’s performance, which utilizes the actress’s deadpan abilities while also traversing much emotional terrain, is an exemplary model of expressive acting in these sequences.
That deadpan quality becomes especially crucial as the narrative chips away at Maureen’s psyche and we are witness to a young woman losing her nerve. The riddle at the center of Personal Shopper is, as per usual with these efforts that are built around a puzzle, perhaps more important than the answer. Assayas certainly doesn’t stretch to lay it out clearly for us. Indeed, by the final set of sequences, the film has become more dependent upon our and the characters’ unconscious conclusions about how all of the film’s pieces (most of which, certainly, haven’t even been hinted at in this review) come together. It’s partly frustrating and partly mesmerizing to watch all of those pieces present themselves to us, particularly when events turn to tragedy and our perceptions of what is important are upended. The ultimate weight rests on its mesmeric qualities.