Since the dawn of cinema, movies have been trying to visualize and elucidate the paranormal: This is a vampire, a demon, a ghost, a loved one visiting from the Other Side. This is how they act, this is what they want and — most importantly for audiences seeking closure — this is how they can be defeated/assuaged/comforted.
Olivier Assayas’ polarizing Cannes sensation Personal Shopper, about a young woman haunted (and hunted) in Paris, is perhaps most notable for offering few remedies, let alone explanations, for the mysteries of the netherworld. In her banal day job as a personal assistant, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) traverses the City of Light on a motorbike, visiting high-end clothiers to purchase wardrobes for her client, a jet-setting fashion model named Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). Off the clock, she’s an emotional recluse, and has been since the passing, three months earlier, of her twin brother Lewis, with whom she shares a degree of supernatural sensitivity as well as the genetic heart malformation that ended his life.
But she shouldn’t feel threatened by the linkage: Just “avoid physical efforts and extreme emotions,” cautions her cardiologist, a line Assayas throws into his atmospheric thriller with all of its attendant irony. Maureen has dedicated her life to establishing contact with Lewis, who had promised he’d reach out from the beyond if he was the first to go. She wanders through his estate, a dark and yawning property blanketed in autumn leaves, detecting residual energy she can’t quite place, eager to interpret every inexplicable tap or distant rustle as a psychic response to her calls. It’s beginning to seem like so much hopeless folly, until puzzling symbols begin to brand themselves onto the walls.
Personal Shopper exists in a similar limbo as its protagonist, settling somewhere between commercial horror film and anti-materialist salvo. Both have merit, and if you can stomach some excruciatingly stilted dialogue late in the film, the film’s push and pull between wasteful materiality and ungraspable ethereality finds a harmony that falls into its own shambling groove.
Nothing in Personal Shopper is more engrossing than its pure-cinema middle section, in which Maureen, en route to London for work, receives a text message from a stalker with a blocked number. Maureen eventually takes this texter, in her irrational will to believe, to be the spirit of Lewis, apparently leaving cryptic crumbs through her data plan.
And maybe it is. Assayas leaves doors open and lets the sequence play itself out, as Maureen and her interrogator engage in edgy SMS conversation, Maureen playing along and even discovering a kind of therapeutic rapport with the “entity” that only the anonymous distance of technology could provide. (It’s surely not incidental that screens, from smartphones to iPads to computer monitors, are a constant presence in Maureen’s life, substituting for and enabling her isolation.) The best part about this voyeuristically compelling sequence is that’s it presented without a word of spoken dialogue, and much of it takes place on a train: Hitchcock, if he were to have lived during our age of tech ubiquity, would have filmed a pursuit like this.
Stewart, who famously appears in every scene and nearly every frame of Personal Shopper, increasingly seems incapable of smiling on camera or raising her voice a single decibel level. But as a tool for an exacting director like Assayas, she’s the most valuable screwdriver in his kit, continuing the affectless Bressonian “modeling” she brought to Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria in 2015. She’s his anchor and ours, keeping everything on an even keel, never becoming another scream queen even at the film’s most unsettling points.
And there are some textbook scares. Personal Shopper likely carries the largest special-effects budget in Assayas’ oeuvre. An existential fantasist, he shows us poltergeist-style phenomena, swirling ectoplasm and spigots that gush of their own accord.
But he doesn’t deign to reveal their provenance, because how do we really know what’s making the house groan or the séance table shake? Viewers may build theories, but the text is refreshingly agnostic. This may be the only film about afterlife communication whose message is the slipperiness and uncertainty of contact, the inner wrestling match between gullibility and doubt, hope and skepticism.
We’re lucky if we receive anything remotely close to proof of life after death. Mostly we grope for a semblance of clarity in a forest of white noise. In acknowledging the seemingly impossibility of bridging this dimensional gap, Assayas has delivered one of the saddest ghost stories of them all.
PERSONAL SHOPPER. Director: Olivier Assayas; Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eldinger, Nora von Waldistatten, Anders Danielsen Lie; Distributor: IFC; Opens: Friday at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, The Classic Gateway in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura 24, the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and AMC Sunset Place 24 in South Miami