To be booed at Cannes is an unofficial accolade. Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and L’Avventura – some of the best films ever made – were received by a sardonic chorus, and at the press screening of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, starring Caesar Award-winner Kristen Stewart, belligerent critics crowned the film with the historic prize.
Personal Shopper is elliptical but emotional, perplexing yet moving. I might not be able to understand all of it, but I can access its tender core. This is a difficult film to read but in no way is it stoic or incompetent. I get the sense it’s elusive by design, not by fault. Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’ previous film that also featured a confounding performance from Kristen Stewart, feels like a companion piece: a story about a woman on the verge of fame haunted by the death of someone we never see.
A strange but affecting mélange a trois, Personal Shopper is a ghost story, a workplace drama and a paranoid techno-thriller. Each element collides and coheres as an interrogation of strained communication and alienated identity.
After the passing of her twin brother Lewis, Maureen (Stewart) stays in France to fulfill a promise: when one sibling passes, the other is to wait for a sign from the afterlife. Stuck in Paris while her boyfriend is abroad, Maureen waits for her dead brother, but she can’t seem to meaningfully connect. Her boss, a famous and wealthy model, is transparent, hardly in the film yet dictating most of what Maureen does as she sprints between jewelry and clothing stores. Maureen also visits the house where her brother died of a sudden heart attack and witnesses a supernatural sighting, even though she is undecided as to whether it’s her deluded imagination or a real presence that she could see.
Maureen’s inbox is flooded by strange texts from an unknown number, which seems to be from the soul of her deceased brother. For most of the film, she is responding to text messages, talking on Skype, interacting through screens and being threatened by things unseen or not present. We’re not entirely sure of what to be scared of: a human stalker, a psychological disfiguration, an evil spirit or a kind one. Is the supernatural a consequence of Maureen’s instability, something metaphysical or a force that can’t be explained or identified?
Honestly, I don’t think even the film knows. It allows the mysteries to sit there, to not make sense of anything and to allow the unease to simmer without fully defining what happens. This can be frustrating: it’s a mystery without a solution, a who-dunnit without a perpetrator. But this is cinema about faith and bolstered by it: we fear only what we can imagine, not what is seen. A door to an elevator opens, nobody is there. It reaches the ground level, exits through automatic doors and invisibly walks through. You have to believe. You have to be the one to see it.
Kristen Stewart is the one who inspires our faith, implying forces that are vividly felt but not observed. She makes reading text messages compelling and authenticates a conceit that could have been well-intentioned but ludicrous. Assayas pushes for the breaking point but finds the sweet spot. His visualizations of the ghosts are subtle enough to be enigmatic but not too minimal as to become muted.
The intersection of spirituality with technology, fame and art is a major theme: the role art plays in reaching an immaterial but equally tangible reality, how the impersonal relationships associated with fame create living ghosts, and how virtual communication is analogous to reaching out to the dead. Although Assayas is concerned with the metaphorical implications of Maureen’s post-mortem relationship with Lewis, he isn’t reducing the prospects of spirituality. The film depends on faith to function; you have to be unsettled by something that may not exist. This is a film that is best to go in knowing nothing and to come to an understanding for yourself. It’s a riddle that can’t be solved with your intellect and yet somehow you can understand with your emotions.
Personal Shopper is enigmatic and inventive. This is daring and rule-bending filmmaking at a minimalist scale, a personal, contemplative horror movie, stripped of observable fright but full of unease. It smoothly trickles down your spine but doesn’t make you jump. Personal Shopper is a ghost of itself: transparent and elusive yet powerful and mysterious. Whenever it verges on clear communication, it vanishes. We can feel it, but we can’t fully make contact.
Even though it's oblique, Personal Shopper is affecting, singular and a great showcase for Kristen Stewart.