Olivier Assayas’s latest film is a lot of things that you don’t expect it to be. Taking the title at face value, Personal Shopper could be a movie about several topics, but definitely not a film about supernatural spirits. I hesitate to call it a “ghost story” as it seems to have been termed elsewhere because that possibly implies that this is a horror film. The film does have its share of frightening moments, but it is not at all focused on making that a priority throughout the film. As the film goes on, even the idea that the film is about supernatural spirits turns out not exactly right. Despite all these tonal shifts, it becomes very clear why the film is called Personal Shopper.
Maureen, played by Kristen Stewart, just lost her twin brother to a heart condition that they both share. Before he died, they both promised each other that whoever died first would try to contact the other in the afterlife. Yes, you read that right. It turns out Maureen and her brother were both mediums who often feel the presence of a supernatural being. Assayas also handles his narration in a similar manner and throws us right in the middle of Maureen looking for her brother’s spirit in his old home. Only later on does he tell us about their connection with the afterlife. It is incredibly jarring to say the least and this is only the beginning.
Maureen is waiting in Paris for her brother to reach out to her and in the meanwhile, she works as a personal shopper for a celebrity who she absolutely cannot stand. In her wait, she starts getting text messages from an unknown person. These texts seem to indicate that the person knows of Maureen’s actions and her whereabouts. There is clearly a feeling that these texts are from a supernatural being and Maureen initially thinks it may be from her brother. However, the texts get more inappropriate yet Maureen keeps indulging in the conversation. The film then progresses into extended sequences of Maureen conversing with this unknown person through text.
Texting is an incredibly ubiquitous platform yet it is only slowly being explored in film. It is easy to see why though. It is hard to create true drama through texting, as it is hard to illustrate the extent to which it is personal. That is why it is no stretch to say what Assayas is trying here is incredibly bold and risky. It is very easy to lose the audience right here with long sequences of Maureen just sending texts and receiving them. However, what Assayas does is recreate the tension that naturally arises from texting. The sequence initially starts with the tension coming from the question of who is texting her, but it later delves into the tension many feel while using the platform which is the tension of being insecure as to what you texted and how you come across saying what you do. Maureen starts off curious as to who is texting her, but she soon finds herself expressing her internal conflict with this mysterious being. She talks about her fears and the forbidden, and she does so anxiously yet at the same time, with somewhat relief.
This is just what Assayas does with this platform on the surface. The broader element that Assayas tackles the role technology plays in grieving. Maureen has distanced herself from everyone and it is essentially because she does feel alone with the loss of her brother. She is a shell of herself and seems to communicate intimately mainly through texting this mysterious person and video chatting with her boyfriend occasionally. Technology clearly plays a vital role in how we communicate and that’s often because how it gives us enough space while giving us enough company. The fact that Assayas is able to portray this dynamic through film is no ordinary feat.
Assayas walks an incredibly tightrope with this texting element and to be honest, I did not find it working initially. It takes time to digest, but the more I think about it, the more it works. The reason the film never lost me despite not initially working is due to Kristen Stewart. She goes much deeper in this film than she ever did before – even more than her highly lauded role in Assayas’ previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria. She acts with every ounce of her body language that she has including her fingers. This is a one-woman show with Stewart often communicating with no one at all. She picks up where Assayas falls flat and together, it is an incredible symbiotic relationship.
The texting parts were clearly a big talking point for this film, but that is only a vehicle for so much more that the film explores. Personal Shopper studies Maureen’s coping with grief. Her twin brother’s death has had an immense impact on her. Through every action of hers, all you see is her waiting. She is desperate to see her brother again. Those who have lost someone dear go through this mourning process. Assayas literalizes this feeling as Maureen is literally looking for her brother’s spirit to reach out to him. While grieving for lost ones, people go to places where they spent time with them or interact with things that meant a lot to them. Maureen goes back to her brother’s home. She tries to find him, but she can’t. Even when she isn’t actively looking for him, she is still looking for him. She hates her job and the incredibly demanding celebrity she works for because it is constantly detracting her from what she really wants to do.
As Kristen Stewart describes in one interview, “Maureen is like half a person…She’s lost half of herself”. Part of Maureen’s whole grieving process is trying to get a hold of herself again. She has lost her identity and she is actively seeking it. Therefore, her very strange text conversation with this unknown person makes all the sense in the world. Initially, it is hope that may be her brother is reaching out to her. Later, it is a way she can finally communicate her emptiness to another person. She says that she wants to be someone else. She starts wearing the dresses of her boss, despite it being forbidden by her, to try and find who she is. The dresses are the identities and she is literally shopping for what she truly is, hence the title “personal shopper”. It is very literal and on-the-nose for Assayas, but there is so much intimacy with which he unravels Maureen’s quest that it can all be forgiven.
She keeps trying on the dresses and there is surely some satisfaction, but ultimately she feels ashamed. Perhaps, ashamed of the satisfaction in uncovering herself while she has still not made contact with her brother. As the film goes on, she realizes like anyone who is grieving the loss of a close one must finally realize. Her brother will always be with her and he will always be a part of her. It is a realization that is reached a lot sooner by the brother’s girlfriend and Maureen is taken aback by how she managed to do so.
Olivier Assayas strays away from subtlety more than before, but he also makes sure that most of Maureen’s journey is one we still take on our own without our hand being held. While he succeeded in making a powerfully personal film, he does have his fair share of shortcomings. The way he resolves the mystery of the texter is handled intriguingly with no attention, but it still feels a bit odd. While the conversation allowed us to get closer to Maureen, it could have possibly gone further and Assayas seems to cut away more than I would like. But when Assayas manages to make Maureen so real and handle her introspection so delicately, it is hard to look at the faults.
Of course, he also gets more help than he can ask for from Kristen Stewart. Is there an actress who gets braver and bolder with each movie to the extent that Stewart does? Her awkward, timid, and deadpan personality gets a lot of flack, but she uses those traits to such extraordinary effect. It is amazing how she uses her introversion as charisma and how she creates a feeling of spontaneity from her deadpan nature. This isn’t to say that she is always subtle. Stewart does more than manage to externalize Maureen’s pain outright. I don’t know if Stewart is an actress with many talents, but there are many facets to whatever talent she does have and Assayas is clearly the filmmaker who is bringing it out. At the same time, she is bringing out great things from Assayas. It is among the greatest collaborations in film right now and I surely hope there will be some more.