Haunting from the first frame to the last, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is an effortless dramatic-horror hybrid that consciously attempts to portray a disconnect between understanding the cost of materialism and the immeasurable value of the metaphysical, but instead conveys something much more priceless. Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria follow-up is a multi-tiered study in finding self-identity on physical, mental and spiritual levels, and the imprint that kindred spirits have in shaping that selfness, in life and death.
Our protagonist Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a self-appointed medium, is a reluctant personal shopper by day with a fondness for abstract painter Hilma af Klint and those alike. By night, she wanders the unlit corridors of her deceased brother Lewis’ shudder-inducing residence as a ghost-hunter of sorts, yearningly calling his name, waiting for him to provide the sign he’d promised to deliver from beyond the grave should he perish first. The signal is more meaningful than just an indication of Lewis’ peaceful passing to Maureen, though. It’s a manifestation of the twins’ unspoken hope placed in the existence of an afterlife.
Suddenly, this superficially-driven fable thematically tackling the horrors of a life lived materialistically is unraveling, revealing the innards of a parable, a ghost story unlike any other, masquerading itself as something less. While undoubtedly scary, this ghost story’s end goal is not to terrify you, at least not in the traditional sense. Maureen, burdened with the same heart defect that took the life of her brother, has an obsession with what is “forbidden” to her. She can prance around in designer clothes that don’t belong to her and converse with an unknown adversary on an iPhone, but what is exclusively, wholeheartedly forbidden to Maureen is her own happiness.
She’s been unable to escape her brother since utero, cursed with an imperfect heart from birth and apathetic towards all the ways she and her twin were similar, including the spiritualist gift. Maureen, albeit subconsciously, uses the passing of her brother to find her identity, to find happiness.
Maureen is waiting for Lewis to provide the final push, to assist in finding this freedom and thusly, her true self. After all, the security in knowing that there is, something, after death, will allow Maureen to live life uninhibitedly. Personal Shopper is a masterful exploration in self-liberation and knowing thyself. And, on a much larger scale, coming to terms with the absurdity of existence and disparaging the notion if one is ever to live a fulfilling life.
This Paris-set ghost story isn’t nearly as preoccupied with visual splendour as its predecessor, Clouds of Sils Maria, was. Instead, Personal Shopper wants you to be infatuated with what you can’t see. Assayas does a phenomenal job of concocting dread from nothingness. I can’t recall a film experience where I’ve felt more haunted, not only by otherworldly apparitions, but by the decisions and circumstances facing the afflicted.
This isn’t to say the film is lacking visual stimulation. The phantoms that visit Maureen recall the weightlessness and, oddly comforting velvet-like weaves of ectoplasmic trails that one envisions when imagining spooky spectres. As for its setting, what can one really say about Paris that hasn’t already been said?
When it comes to the acting, Kristen Stewart continues to reward believers while emancipating herself from those who’ve forever ensnared her without parole from the Twilight saga with another powerful, yet inconceivably fragile performance. Somber and directionless, Stewart embodies the soul of an indifferent, frustrated individual too afraid of living to be considered alive. Undeniably, this is a career-best turn for the young actress and there’s no telling where her prodigious talent will take her in the future.
The effort demanded to decipher Personal Shopper’s ambiguity and discover its well- hidden lessons to live by will certainly exhaust, enrage and divide viewers. One may not be so willing to open themselves up to a point of such vulnerability in order to attack the film’s existential ideals. However, for those willing to meet Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper head-on, they’ll be greeted by the hand of a phantasm that will delicately caress your soul as you wrestle with the meaning of life, death, and loss. The only thing I was sure of when the credits rolled was my desire for another viewing.
Featuring a career-best turn from Kristen Stewart and the always enchanting, insightful lens of Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper definitely won’t be for everyone, even if it was made with everyone in mind.