Believe it or Not: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Opens March 10

It might sound strange to say Personal Shopper feels like a small film, when it stars Kristen Stewart as a buyer for a jet-set socialite and it’s directed by a major filmmaker like Olivier Assayas. An American in Paris, Maureen (Stewart) spends her days choosing clothes and accessories for her boss, who has the uberrich’s luxury of being perpetually absent. But Maureen’s own sense of absence, or unfulfillment, is no choice, and she’s further haunted by the death of her twin brother. That means it’s doubly a ghost story, somewhere between the mourning of her sibling and her own vanishing self. Perhaps it’s the spiritual pain and poverty that can make even the fashion boutiques and chateau and boulevards feel depopulated.

The activity in Personal Shopper is characteristically oblique and beguiling, though a source of suspense arises: a menacing series of anonymous texts sent to Maureen’s phone, right when she might be most vulnerable to such entreaties. The alienating job of buying beautiful things for someone else has yielded diminishing returns for the secondhand cosmopolitan, and her contact with a ragged far-flung boyfriend seems to be withering over Skype, along with her ambitions. While there are points of comparison with Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Stewart plays personal assistant to a famous actress (played by Juliette Binoche), Stewart looks more vulnerable here, oddly diminished in stature compared to that film’s gatekeeper role, and as a performer, she makes the choice to give in fully to her nerve-jangling sense of candor.

Assayas and Stewart may not attain the sinuous mysteries of Clouds of Sils Maria here, but again that’s because of this project’s focus. Oscillating at the recognizable frequencies of Gothic question-raising and twentysomething angst, the film zeroes in on Maureen rather than the complex binaries of Clouds. She plays a character in a job meant to be invisible and anonymous, but she’s also framed to seem slight; as in Irma Vep, Assayas seems to get a lot out of watching her slip and track through spaces. As in so many of his films, part of the satisfaction comes from feeling Assayas searching through the possibilities as much as his characters do, yet without floating above his material.

Assayas observes some beyond-the-grave conventions—Maureen encounters signs from the beyond and witnesses ectoplasmic visitations—but his film also delves, almost whimsically, into a secret intertwined history of abstract art and spiritualism, referencing the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint through clips from a faux documentary. That kind of move makes Personal Shopper hard to pigeonhole: it plays smoothly as both a lithe, introspective journey and an illustration of the disembodied interconnectedness of contemporary life, which can seem at once magical and banal, like the second coming of the supernatural and just business as usual. 

Photo Courtesy of IFC Films