The living often make use of the dead for their own purposes, but do the dead ever return the favor? What would it mean if they did? Such questions lie at the heart of Olivier Assayas’s new film Personal Shopper, which stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright, a young woman living in Paris, working at the titular job, which she claims to hate, as a means of supporting herself while she pursues her true calling as a spiritual medium. This slightly silly-seeming turn, which is not unexpected, given the interest Assayas has expressed across multiple films in the power of the occult (in all senses of the word), is explained through plotting as being the result of newly cemented grief. Maureen lost her twin brother Lewis unexpectedly three months prior to our entry into her world, his passing a result of a heart condition which they both share (but which their doctor reassures Maureen should not deliver her to the same fate). Apparently both twins have the gift of extra sensory perception (although the film suggests that perhaps Lewis simply convinced both of them that this was the case) and earlier in their lives the twins agreed that whoever passed into the unknown first would try to contact the other in some material way. As the film begins, Maureen is trying to suss out if Lewis is haunting his old house, both as a means of seeking his company and as a reassurance to the couple who want to purchase it. She has several weird and inexplicable encounters in the building, but although one such includes a female apparition vomiting up ectoplasm, none rises to the level of what Maureen would consider definitive proof of after-life.
Maureen does start to give Lewis’s persistence on this plane of existence more credence once it seems like he might be texting her. This is where the movie turns away from what seems to be a psychological mood piece rooted in the supernatural and begins to resemble a more conventional psychological thriller. The thriller aspect arrives via Maureen’s day job; she is the personal shopper for one Kyra (last name forgotten no thanks to IMDB, but portrayed by Nora von Waldstatten), a high powered individual of uncertain profession, who we, and Maureen, rarely encounter in the flesh as the film unfolds. Maureen picks up clothes for Kyra, sometimes illicitly trying them on first (they are a similar size, but apparently the practice infuriates Kyra), and then delivers them back and forth, depending on Kyra’s whim. She acts a little like a personal assistant, and so has full access to Kyra’s residence. On an early delivery, Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a similarly jet setting lover of Kyra’s, who is about to get his walking papers – he is waiting around while Kyra is on an interminable phone call with her lawyer to, one supposes, beg for a second chance between the sheets. During their encounter, Maureen opens up to Ingo, and tells him that she dislikes her job, although refusing a better paying one he offers up (she tells him that even though it is more creative, she sees more “freedom” in her current, “stupid” job). Further, she confides that her brother has recently died, and that she is staying in Paris to try to contact him. Soon she is getting text messages from an unknown number which are coy in their provenance and hint, in both the rapidity of delivery and in the metaphysical nature of their demands, that they could be from her dead twin. (Of course, they could be from Ingo, who we think might be trying to seduce her or perhaps gaslight her for some as yet unknown purpose). As the texting becomes more intense and intimate, Maureen slips further down the rabbit’s hole of her own fears and desires, and the stakes become higher, both within this material plane and on the metaphysical one. Soon we don’t know if Maureen is losing her mind, unraveling a plot, making a breakthrough to the other side, or all of the above.
Assayas likes to blend genres, and this is no exception. Sometimes, as in Demonlover, the blending succeeds and creates a heady, uncanny experience – we feel we are watching something with little precedent and revel in the audacity. At other times, as in Boarding Gate, we don’t understand what he is trying to accomplish, and the generic elements of the blend fail to gel and instead grind against each other (with tedium being the result). Personal Shopper falls somewhere in between. We can see the plot points of the thriller coming a mile away, but that is beside the point, as the thriller is really just a mirror within which Maureen’s interior voyage is reflected – it allows her to answer the questions she has about her brother (or at least ask them fully) while providing a plausible real-world explanation that undermines her quest. By marrying the mundane with the possibly supernatural, Assayas creates for the viewer the same uncertainty that Maureen experiences – we are fully with her in her own confusion and in the ambivalence she feels towards believing that the “answers” are telling her what she wants to know. On the supernatural side of things, there are some genuinely chilling moments (especially later in the film) and, at the same time, some slightly stupid ones (as in the overwrought CGI ghost early on). Everything makes sense, and has aesthetic merit, in that what we are seeing might all be a projection of Maureen’s mind, and the movie really is about the difficulty of knowing who one is, and if one can trust their own feelings and perceptions to reveal TRUTH, or merely “truth.” For this viewer, however, the overall shape of the film still feels a bit like paint-by-numbers art film. There is the questioning of the coherent self, ruminations on the nature of identity, freedom, and the possibility of real knowledge. There is a doubling of women accompanied by the projection of desire, there is ambiguity and a refusal to give any firm answers, despite much accumulation of “proof.” Everything shifts and could be a reflection of “reality,” or just a reflection of the protagonist’s desires (well, more than that, a working through of issues and the prospect of some kind of interior synthesis). We have seen it all before; indeed, I at first assumed that this film was a continuation of Assayas’s prior Clouds of Sils Maria, as Kristen Stewart in that film portrayed a personal assistant who, if I remember correctly, speaks of having a twin brother. While I suppose it is still possible that this film is set prior to the other, it does seem that Personal Shopper is a reflection rather than a continuation of that earlier (and far better) film. Part of my deep interest in seeing Personal Shopper was in seeing how Assayas and Stewart would work together one-on-one, and how the themes of the prior film might expand. Sadly, they do not. While Personal Shopper has many affecting moments, the emotional core of the film cannot deliver, and I must sadly report that this is due to Kristen Stewart’s performance. She simply can’t reach the intensity of sadness coupled with fear (mostly the fear of self-discovery) that the role demands. She excels at portraying a kind of interior anomie, the blank alienation of the world-weary or the self-imposed exile (which makes her a natural match for a director like Assayas, who is interested in “cool” but also in what lies beneath such surfaces). But she just can’t deliver the intensity required when the facade cracks. In every scene where she is asked to cry, it looks forced and faked – Stewart will rub her eyes, and sniffle, and hide her face with her jacket or her hands. Of course defenders might say that such mannerisms are based in her character, but compared to an actress like Isabelle Huppert, who can build the pressure of pain behind the facade and then deliver the devastation of the facade crumbling, Stewart appears out of her depth. (Of course Huppert has 40 years of experience on Stewart, so I understand the comparison is unfair). While Stewart is a very talented actress, this role made me reconsider Clouds of Sils Maria, and how impressed I was with her performance in that film. It made me realize that so much of what made the prior film powerful was the interplay between the women (and it made me reconsider how much weight and impact the presence of Juliette Binoche lent to all the performances in the film). Personal Shopper focuses on one character, and the interiority of that character is all – so the emotional power of the film rests squarely on Stewart’s shoulders. She doesn’t fail, and neither does the film, but her limits as an actress are also the film’s limits. It ends as it begins: a thriller with some genuine chills, but without the transcendence necessary to make it more than an admittedly interesting genre mash-up.