Synopsis: Revolves around a ghost story that takes place in the fashion underworld of Paris. (Source)
There is a ghost in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, but it isn’t the scariest thing in his latest film, a seductive, clever thriller that pits materialism against the supernatural. What makes the film truly haunting, is its focus on the ghosts of our own ambition, and the parts of ourselves that die when we lose someone close. Because of this, Assayas finds terror in mourning and a catharsis that’s as chilling as it is affecting. Right from the start, the film is steeped in lyricism and atmosphere, with star Kristen Stewart at her most electric, and Assayas at his most heartbreaking. This is Poltergeist for the modern age, featuring a world of self-obsessed elitists and the lost souls who get lost in the shuffle – it’s also an astounding achievement that transcends genre to display a humanity rarely glimpsed on screen.
The story follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a Parisian transplant reeling after the death of her twin brother, Lewis. Maureen pretty much hates her life, personal shopper to a bratty celeb by day, spiritual medium by night, attempting to contact Lewis from beyond. The pair shared a similar malformation of the heart, one that unexpectedly took Lewis’ life and could take Maureen’s at any moment. Maureen’s only consolation is a pact that the siblings made when young, that whoever died first would give the other a sign, or proof of the afterlife. Desperate for otherworldly contact, but with a head full of doubt and guilt, Maureen’s world begins to crumble after a mysterious encounter, one that leads to a number of shocking revelations and an insidious relationship with something or someone not quite of this earth.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, the very fear of our mortality hangs over every decision we make, and it’s this idea that Assayas hones in on so well. Through Maureen, Assayas paints a deeply devastating portrait of a woman grasping for anything she can, longing for connection and purpose through the cracks of her existence. Though she navigates the inner circles of haute couture, she’s empty, broken and alone, even within a bustling, modern world where technology has broken the barrier of privacy and truth is malleable. There’s a lot to parse here, with Assayas contrasting the unknowable metaphysical with shiny, material riches and damning psychological angst. Still, Assayas’ film is so understated, it’s easy to forget that, at heart, this is a ghost story, and the apparitions and mysterious messages that Maureen receives add an insidious aura to the sinister existential mystery. While the plot may have all the tenets of a generic horror story, Assayas miraculously never bows to convention, keeping things focused on the suffocating torment of Maureen’s loneliness and her need for closure.
Given, that the film is a dense existential character study, it simply wouldn’t work without Kristen Stewart’s performance, and boy does she deliver. Those still tying the performer to her awkward Twilight character be damned, what she delivers here is simply stunning, working with nuance to paint a picture of devastation and heartache. Even with minimal dialogue, Stewart makes Maureen feel fully formed, utilizing painful glances, unexpected sensuality and stray looks to emote ideas louder than words. That final, haunting frame feels like a lightning bolt thanks to Stewart, and her presence and the pain she’s channeling are undeniable. Sigrid Bouaziz’s wealthy Lara and Lars Eidinger’s Ingo, the former’s disgruntled ex-lover make minor but effective contributions to the whole, but this is Stewart’s show and she thrives.
Personal Shopper’s relationship with death is honest and brave, finally facing a lot of unsaid fears with an understated grace. Stewart and Assayas are a power team to be reckoned with, delivering a perfect synergy between craft, theme and performance. Those looking for generic horror story will be let down, but just as the film’s protagonist is forced to do, opening up to the unexpected will yield powerful results.