Olivier Assayas’s latest film is presumably called Personal Shopper because Personal Shopper: Ghost Hunter was already taken. Or maybe because it would have belittled the more serious story he wants to tell in what turns out to be a pleasingly strange film.
Kristen Stewart stars as the eponymous shopper and dabbling medium Maureen, who buys clothes for classically bitchy supermodel designer Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten), while having mysterious spiritual experiences on her nights off. She’s remained in Paris since her brother died there of a heart attack caused by a hereditary disease the year before, and as per an agreement with her dead sibling, she’s waiting for him to give her a sign that he’s going steady on the other side, but soon gets increasingly frustrated with the lack of spectral communication.
In the hands of a jobbing American director and with a teenage screamer in the lead, this could be the premise for an all-out ham fest, filled with loud noises and startlingly relevant questions like ‘What is happening?’ or ‘Why are you doing this?’ Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), Assayas has aimed a lot higher, bringing together a selection of talent from his 2014 film Clouds Of Sils Maria to once again focus on wealth and fame from an outsider’s perspective, creating a film that gets creepier the longer it goes on.
The majority of the opening act could be the start of a hard-nosed bourgeois French drama. Maureen has a certain degree of privilege and respect, but it’s all second-hand, the reverential shadow of someone more talented and beautiful than her, at least in the public’s eye. The scenes of her trying on Kyra’s clothes and hanging around in her plush apartment could be lifted from any half-baked critique of shallow aspiration and celebrity ennui. Assayas, however, shows his deft hand as an experienced director and slowly weaves in the eerie elements of the plot seamlessly until it transcends the basic premise and becomes an unsettling ghost story.
Maureen is a surprisingly engaging protagonist and follows a string of strong leads for Stewart since her career making role in the Twilight film saga. The ending, without giving too much away, is perfectly ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations without reducing itself to an M. Night Shyamalan style final disclosure.
In the cliché-filled world of horror, it’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t resort to cheap shocks to thrill its audience, while also adding a nice dose of French existential malaise to the mix.