Death is a closed door and an open window. It’s an empty void and an overbearing presence. Personal Shopper, the newest film from acclaimed writer/director Oliver Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), is a mystifying, majestically distanced drama/thriller grappling with the most horrific terror of all: the unknown, notably in the wake of unshakeable tragedy. It’s a ghost story, yes, but it’s also an examination on lost as seen through our apathetic present-day worldview, where our emotions are hidden and/or distanced by technology, and our lives are lived through self-imposed barriers and culturally-accepted detachments. To cast Kristen Stewart, one of our most gorgeously minimalist actresses and modern icons, is a stroke of brilliance. Personal Shopper is a reflection piece that’s hauntingly felt.
Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) is a quiet woman waiting to be heard. An American woman who works as a personal assistant to a high-profile celebrity, there are shades of her perceptive, wise-beyond-her-years Valentine from Sils Maria, yet Maureen is her own woman. Her generally laissez-faire lifestyle, which involves Maureen purchasing new, very expensive clothes and jewelry for her rarely-seen, world-known employer, is an empty and unfilled one. Beyond the occasional Skype call to her out-of-the-loop boyfriend back home — a man whom Maureen seems to hold little-to-no interest in, at least, as far as we can tell — and her casual friendship with Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), Maureen is lonely, miserable, bored and heartbroken, the latter due to her twin brother Lewis, who recently passed away at 28.
Since his untimely death, Maureen walks and wonders around Lewis’ empty country house, hoping to finally communicate with her deceased brother. As amateur mediums, Lewis and Maureen bonded through their mutual interest in the paranormal, with Lewis, in particular, believing he shared a strong hold with the spirit world. It’s an intangible interconnection Maureen also thinks she possesses with the other dimension, if not quite as strongly as Lewis. To allow her twin, and ultimately herself, to make peace with his abrupt passing, Maureen longs for some form of confirmation from/interaction with Lewis’ phantom presence, in her hopes to learn how to live without him, if she can. And Lewis (or, at least, someone from the other side) does reach out to Maureen, if not exactly in the manner she would expect. Through a series of sourceless text messages, Maureen seemingly talks to her departed sibling. While their conversations are intense and demanding, they provide Maureen with some semblance of closure during this tenuous turning point in her early life.
It’s a mix of new-age millennial disassociation with the outside world and classic gothic haunted house/lurking premonition otherworldly dread, all of which is guided gently and graciously by Assayas’ growingly-skilled hand. As confident and poised as ever, largely inspired by Stewart’s own naturalistic, seemingly effortless assurance at the very forefront, Personal Shopper is engrossing and isolated, compelling and confounding, exploring the spirituality and emptiness of mourning, and how we find ourselves quite literally haunted by our insecurities, physical and mental limitations, and those we lost in our listless lives. Through Assayas, these universal themes of alienation and blind remorse are feed new life.
It’s starkly despondent and quietly intimidating. Filled with remorse and reflection, contemplation and introspection, it’s sulky and gloomy, but it’s also gripping and moving, in its own downplayed manner. Desolate in its approach, yet still uniquely transfixing, Personal Shopper is a bleakly riveting accomplishment, one that’s not easily forgotten. Like a spirit lingering, it stays by you, with you, through you and within you. It’s unshakeable.
Its disconnected style, however suitable, can take some adjusting to get used to, and its general ambivalence, particularly towards its open ending, might leave some annoyed. If you’re looking for quick thrills, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for easy answers, they won’t be found here. Personal Shopper isn’t meant to be consumed; rather, it’s meant to be pondered, observed, reminisced. That’s only appropriate. Yes, it can be dull, and yes, it’s not always easy to understand. But that adds to its grounded, believable effectiveness.
Artistic by design and remote by choice, unless the moment calls for intimacy, Personal Shopper is disturbing in the sense that it’s so mesmerizingly evocative. It’ll be a tough sell for some, yet even though it touches upon such universal notions, it’ll likely only appeal to those who approach its melancholic yearning like Maureen herself: waiting with willful unease, hoping for closure and contempt, but above all else, wanting to find a connection.