Everything that’s good about the meditative, supernatural drama Personal Shopper centres on Kristen Stewart and her depiction of a twin sister’s solemn desperation to draw a line under her brother’s death in Paris.
Personal Shopper is a curious being. French writer-director Olivier Assayas’ dreamy meditation on grief, loss and identity is at once a gritty urban drama and a supernatural ghost story. His tendency here is to pull away from convention only to allow generic tropes to supplant character study with nods to sprawling haunted houses, disembodied entities and jumps in the night.
Kristen Stewart, in one of her finest performances, is Maureen, a young American woman grieving the loss of her twin brother. She’s in Paris where her brother died of a heart attack. Although she appears unaffected, her twin died from the genetic heart condition they each shared.
Similarly, both siblings had an interest in the paranormal, believing in a spiritual capability to communicate with the afterlife. Maureen is determined to stay in Paris until she gains a sign from her brother that there is some kind of life after death. But things aren’t quite that simple.
She’s a complicated, compelling and quietly determined individual who believes in her otherworldly talent with a defiant sincerity. But she’s pragmatic and intelligent too, boasting a talent for fashion that has enabled her to gain work with a well-known celebrity as her personal shopper. It means she can pay the rent and stay in Paris while she tries to make contact with her brother.
But she attracts the attentions of a mystery admirer who begins sending ambiguous texts to her phone. The continued anonymity of the texts makes them subtly threatening without direct provocation but Maureen’s curiosity is stirred by the unlikely belief it is her brother using the phone to communicate. More likely, it’s someone – alive and well – who knows her, and Maureen probably agrees without admitting it.
But a sense of isolation and loneliness after her brother’s death opens her up to the text writer’s interest and his or her very personal line of questioning. Indeed, it seems to encourage another side of Maureen to emerge; a daring, carefree, dangerous diversion from her daily routine.
Everything that’s good about Personal Shopper centres on Stewart and her depiction of Maureen’s moody desperation to draw a line under her twin’s death. The famed Twilight actress who previously attracted attention as a teenager in David Fincher’s Panic Room has rarely been better. There’s an unassuming determination to her that’s framed by the emotional fragility of someone who has just lost a loved one.
There’s also a sense she’s battling with her own identity. Perhaps that’s the impact of being a twin; a sameness searching for novelty. But the fact she’s a personal shopper, living her employer’s consumerist life for her, suggests she willingly wants to step into another’s shoes. She’s drawn to trying on the dresses she purchases even though it is forbidden. At one point she gets into her employer Kyra’s (Nora von Waldstätten) designer dress and, while wearing it, masturbates in her bed.
Just as striking is Assayas’ foreboding sense of the supernatural hanging in the air. Personal Shopper steers itself away from the traditional ghost story but elements of the genre’s defining tropes are evident. The house in which Maureen’s brother died could be straight out of The Haunting or The Changeling, while the indication of paranormal activity is delivered with the sort of flair horror film fans will surely savour. There are moments of genuine unease and some very effective uses of subtle special effects.
One scene in particular stands out when the elevator doors of a hotel open with no one inside. The camera tracks backwards as if following an unseen person out of the hotel. The building’s sliding entry doors are activated by this entity as it vacates the building. It’s wonderfully ambiguous with Assayas using it to bookend a dramatic plot twist.
But this isn’t a scary movie (despite it raising the hairs on the back of your neck from time to time). It’s a riveting, unhurried supernatural drama with a brilliantly compelling central performance from the very talented Kristen Stewart. Left open to interpretation, Personal Shopper is the sort of film that may mean different things to different people. Yet, one thing’s for sure, it’s a beautifully rendered tale of emotions in flux; a beguiling curiosity that begs to be seen again… and again.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Written by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
Top 10 Films reviewed Personal Shopper on DVD courtesy of Icon Film Distribution. The film was released on Digital July 10, and DVD/Blu-ray on July 17, 2017.