Despite the laughably low artistic baseline established by cinema’s contemporary mainstream attractions, niche audiences continually expect art house films to elevate themselves above the schlock with aesthetic photography, unobtrusive editing, and convincing performances. While Personal Shopper contains the aforementioned positive qualities, as well as singular storytelling and gripping thematic content, it ultimately proves dependant on two subjectivities to sweep a viewer off her feet: 1. a willingness to believe that supernatural events can occur, particularly those related to the spirits of the deceased, and 2. an experience with loss, and more specifically the loss of someone with whom you had a profound emotional connection.
The new film by Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Summer Hours) follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), who works in Paris as the eponymous personal shopper for an egocentric A-list actress. She zips around the city on a Peugeot scooter from one luxurious boutique to the next (all while garbed in, mind you, unassuming thrift-store sweater after unassuming thrift-store sweater), purchasing over-priced handbags, conspicuous leather pants, and provocative dresses. She hates every moment of it.
The only thing keeping her from quitting and ditching Paris all together is her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis (or perhaps Louis, considering the French locale), whose rare heart condition caused a fatal cardiac event (Maureen also happens to suffer this affliction, but nonetheless, and rather inexplicably, smokes like the proverbial chimney). Before his death, Maureen and Lewis promised to provide one another with a sign from the afterlife if their spirit lived on — they both happen to be mediums, though this factors rather minimally into the story. Thus, Maureen spends bated nights in her brother’s eerie, vacant home, waiting for any indication that his soul did not die with his body.
While this all might seem as if it lays groundwork for a film with a minimally active protagonist (which Maureen certainly is, so much so that when other characters ask what she’s still doing in Paris if she hates it there so much, she simply tells them that she’s “waiting” and that she “needs more time”), Assayas manages to pull it off thanks to his engaging thematic exploration of denial. Though able to accept that her brother experienced bodily death, Maureen clings to the possibility that his spirit could still be present in his deserted home. She soon comes to consider that maybe the spirit is not bound to a location, but instead to a person, and more specifically to her. Thus, Lewis’ ghost haunts Maureen wherever she travels.
Yet, Assayas wraps a further layer of denial around his protagonist, as Maureen expresses a reluctance to confess that she’s even willing to believe Lewis lives on in spirit at all; she tells others that she was not nearly as into all the medium stuff as her brother and that she doesn’t even know if ghosts exist. Inevitably, Maureen finds herself toeing a line, knowing that should she choose to jump to one side or the other, she will have to undergo a taxing emotional experience that may not prove to be the catharsis that she seeks.
Tying it all together is a performance by Stewart that’s just short of stunning, as her self-effacing style is the perfect choice for the role (unsurprisingly, Assayas, who previously employed Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria, wrote the part for her). Though the actress often appears withdrawn, she avoids sacrificing any magnetism and cements herself as one of contemporary cinema’s fetching brooders with unquestionable acting chops (think: Ryan Gosling in Drive, or Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals). In the opening scene, Stewart does little more than escort the camera through her brother’s empty home, while waiting for any visual or auditory clue that Lewis is still present. This could have been rather dull, but her reactions to even the softest sounds immediately clue us in to a deeper emotional importance to her mission. When she’s called upon to offer more (specifically during the film’s final 30 minutes), her acting is nothing short of applause-worthy; she conveys trauma without approaching anything resembling camp.
But Personal Shopper is not for everyone. Though Lewis is constantly on her mind, Maureen spends a large chunk of the film not, in fact, actively pursuing her brother. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how she could, considering (again as she puts it) all she can do is wait. Her thoughts of him seep into every interaction she has, though, including a hefty subplot in which Maureen SMS messages with a mysterious entity. She even questions if the stranger is Lewis communicating from beyond the grave, but the responses she receives remain enigmatic, and instead urge her to commit forbidden acts (such as trying on her employer’s clothes) as a form of release. (It’s worth noting that the film doesn’t shy away from modern technology, as it utilizes texting, Skype, and even YouTube videos, with perhaps some lethargic side effects.) While it all builds to a harrowing encounter, some may find this storyline predictable, or even pointless.
Furthermore, though the trailer hints that the film will regularly push your heart to 200BPM, the viewing is more of a meditative and methodical experience. While Maureen is a medium hunting a ghost (much like The Conjuring), there’s never any indication that, should she find said ghost, any harm will become her (much unlike The Conjuring). Those seeking an “edge-of-your-seat” thrill ride brimming with cheap jump-scares should look elsewhere. Personal Shopper can be categorized as a character study within the frame of an anti-horror flick, and character studies always demand patience. Those who are willing to meet Assayas halfway will find the film rewarding, even if they have yet to experience the loss of a loved one (or don’t believe in ghosts themselves) and those who have (and do believe in ghosts) will be moved.