“R U alive or dead?”
An autumnal atmosphere of death prevails over Olivier Assayas’ weirdo ghost story/voyeurism thriller Personal Shopper. Kristen Stewart, jittery and endlessly watchable, is Maureen — personal shopper for a movie star by day, ghost-hunting medium by night. Maureen hates her paying gig, seeking out trendy clothes and outrageously expensive jewelry for the vapid Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) — but it allows her to live in Paris, at least. What she really wants to do with her time is contact dead people. Specifically one dead person: her twin brother Lewis, who recently died from a heart attack due to an oversized ventricle. Maureen suffers from the same condition, and while her doctor tells her that Lewis’ death was “exceptional”, there’s the ever-present fear that she could kick the bucket prematurely as well.
Maureen is scoping out Lewis’ house, hoping for some sort of communication, when she comes across a completely different ghost — a female specter with violent tendencies, prone to spitting out ectoplasm. As if this weren’t troublesome enough, Maureen begins receiving mysterious text messages from a stranger. Is it Lewis, or some other ghost who has infiltrated iMessaging? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s a living, breathing person leading Maureen into a dangerous game.
Assays devotes huge stretches of time to close-ups on Maureen’s iPhone screen as she texts back and forth with her mysterious stranger, and this should be boring. Yet it’s not, and a large reason it all works is Stewart, who continues to be one of the most interesting actresses working today. Stewart seems to have been taking pointers from recent director Woody Allen, as she portrays Maureen with the same awkward self-loathing mixed with verbal stammering that Allen has perfected through the years.
Stewart aside, this is an inherently weird movie. At times it dips into Brian De Palma-esque territory, as Maureen begins trying on Kyra’s sexy clothes and shoes in order to send photo-texts to her secret texting admirer. Maureen comments that she wants to be someone else, and that “forbidden” things increase her desire. She slips into a fetish-y outfit of Kyra’s, complete with strappy breast-harness, and becomes a complete different being — her awkward stammering and self-doubt is gone, replaced by a more sexually aware individual. Yet Personal Shopper is too reserved to truly evoke De Palma.
Assays has constructed a ghost story where ghosts are almost an afterthought. There are full-blown scenes of the paranormal here, but they don’t make much of an impact. Instead, Assays script is more interested in the distasteful decisions people put themselves through just in order to make a living. Maureen hates her job, but it pays the bills. Yet when Kyra’s smug boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) offers her a more creative job working for a magazine, she flat-out turns it down due to principles — she doesn’t like that her work with any magazine would be surrounded by advertising she doesn’t support. “What would it matter?” Ingo asks. “You already have a stupid job, nothing would change.”
The Paris setting, awash in dead leaves, wet streets and overcast skies, looks marvelous thanks to Yorick Le Saux’s fashion-shoot-ready cinematography, and Stewart — decked out in drab sweaters, sporting a messy haircut and frequently ducking out for smoke-breaks — inhabits this world naturally. It cannot be overstated how engrossing Personal Shopper is simply because of Stewart’s presence. A final segment of the film drags a bit as Maureen relocates to a new setting, but Stewart’s compelling performance keeps things afloat.
Personal Shopper is something of an anomaly. It’s too reserved and scare-free to appeal to horror fans, yet there’s too much supernatural mumbo-jumbo to appeal to discerning art-house audiences. But for everyone in between — those seeking a somber yet funny. creepy yet not-quite-creepy film, will find something worth digging here. At the very least, anyone who has ever succumbed to less-than-desirable work to make ends meet will find something to relate to here. “I spend my days doing bullshit I hate that keeps me from doing what I want to do,” Maureen confesses at one point. Who hasn’t been there?
Personal Shopper is playing at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.