In Olivier Assayas’s new film, Personal Shopper, the main character Maureen, played by Kristen Stewart, declares herself to be a medium. That is, she has the ability to make contact with the dead in the spirit world. At least, she thinks she does. When we meet her she is in Paris after the sudden death of her twin brother, Lewis, hoping to make contact with him as per the pact they made as children. In order to make ends meet Maureen is working as a personal shopper and assistant for a German supermodel, a job she hates. Her boyfriend urges her over Skype to come join him in Oman, but she won’t leave until she makes contact with Lewis.
Assayas is a filmmaker who, as I have mentioned before, is deeply attuned and aware of the history of cinema and the development of its genres. Here he tackles the ghost story, a genre which not only has a long history in cinema, but is intertwined with the history of cinema itself. Spiritualism, that is the interest in contacting the dead through an individual acting as a medium, was a huge phenomenon at the time that cinema was emerging. Some thought cinema itself could capture the images of the dead. Both cinema and the interest in spiritualism were symptomatic of the promise that a medium, human or celluloid, could show a part of the world hidden from normal perception.
Personal Shopper is a film that is interested in exploring what is missing from our contemporary perception of the world around us. Maureen hates her job and her boss. The contrast between her spiritual quest and the jet-setting world of high fashion she works in provides the film’s thematic heft, and it is the intertwining of the two worlds that eventually provides the film with its central drama and suspense.
The film is most effective as a showcase for Stewart, who moves from a supporting role in Assayas’s last film (Clouds of Sils Maria) to a lead role here. Stewart is in almost every single shot of the film. It’s appropriate, given that it is Maureen’s traumatized perception through which the viewer experiences the film. Stewart is more than up to the task, communicating a lot through her nuanced gestures and facial expressions. Much as her character is a medium for connecting with the dead, Stewart acts as a medium for communicating the emotional arc of the film to the audience.
At times, Personal Shopper perhaps is at times almost too on-the-nose with its thematic elements. In the pre- and post-film talks, Assayas emphasized his belief that as our world becomes increasingly materialistic people will be drawn to some kind of non-material realm. If that is the case, then it is entirely appropriate that Assayas would use the cinematic ghost story in this role.
8 out of 10
Personal Shopper (France/Sweden)
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas; starring Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz.