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‘Personal Shopper’ Is the Perfect Ghost Story for Our Modern Times

In director Olivier Assayas’s supernatural tale, the spirits are scary — and so is the texting

Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas (Getty Images)
Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas (Getty Images)

In Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart wanders the rooms of an empty house hoping to catch a sign from her twin brother, who died suddenly of a heart deformity that Stewart’s character, Maureen, shares. You could say she’s haunted — above all by her dead brother, who was a medium like her, and who’d vowed to her that whoever died first would send the other a sign from the other side. In a way, given her heart, she’s also haunted by the specter of her own sudden death. In the movie, she has returned to Paris, where her brother lived, to scope out his home for a presence and make peace with it before his girlfriend can sell the property. Looking for a sign from her sibling has become Maureen’s mission — and her condition. “What are you doing in Paris?” someone asks. “I’m waiting,” she says.

The movie was directed by Olivier Assayas, the French critic turned director whose alluring, cosmopolitan tales of identity defy easy categorization. Personal Shopper, which earned him Best Director at Cannes in 2016, is his second collaboration in a row with Stewart, who also starred in 2014’s Clouds of Silas Maria, playing the cool, sharp-witted personal assistant to Juliette Binoche’s aging, insecure stage actress. That was a film about the mutable ties between two women — a “female friendship” tale skewered with darker questions about age, ego, and sexuality — as well as a film about performance, and the radiating layers of self we reveal to each other.

Personal Shopper has a relationship between two women at its center, too, between Maureen and the socialite model she works for, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). But here it’s vaguer. Maureen is a personal shopper. Assayas’s film is less interested in the social ties between these two women than in what proximity to glamour does to Maureen’s self-identity. She hates commercialism, but even she associates opulence with a tantalizing sense of the forbidden. Her professional life consists of shuttling back and forth from Cartier and other designers to her boss’s loft to her own cramped Paris apartment. Her private life consists of wandering and waiting.

Assayas has sewn together two distinct films: one about a medium in mourning, challenging the limits of her belief, the other about a personal assistant navigating a commercial world she hates. The elegance of Assayas’s filmmaking is that he’s managed to weld these strands together into the same woman and imbue them with a consistently challenging set of ideas. Personal Shopper is a movie about making contact — with the ghostly dead, as well as with the distant, digitized living. With the self, most of all. Each of these are specters, in their own way. And what Assayas exploits is our willingness to believe they exist.

“I don’t believe in ghosts in the literal sense,” Assayas told Metro Weekly. “Maybe I believe in ghosts if we agree that ‘ghosts’ is a code word for something else — the fact that we have to deal with invisible presences within us and outside of us. We constantly have some sort of conversation with something that’s not exactly there.”

You’d think, from the way Assayas talks about them, that the ghosts in his film were just a metaphor. They might be: This being a film about making contact, the ghosts seem to sum up everything fleeting and intangible about our ties to the outside world and to each other. But there’s also at least one actual ghost in Personal Shopper, an angry ghoul who corners Maureen in her brother’s house and spits up a gooey ectoplasm before fading away. That’s one of the strange things about the movie. In style, tone, and even subject, it’s very much an art film. You don’t expect it to take on some of its B-movie and genre tropes so literally, giving us the aforementioned ghost, for example, and a scene in which Maureen spontaneously masturbates in her boss’s bed, as if this were a silly erotic thriller.

Assayas doesn’t make proper genre films, but he’s a fan of genre, particularly of what elements he can incorporate into his own art. There’s genuine terror here: not just the ghost, but also a murder, to say nothing of the pervasive air of uncertainty enwrapping it all. “I think that the superiority of genre filmmaking is the relationship it has with the body of the audience,” he told Crave. “I think a lot of serious filmmaking has a hard time connecting with the physicality of the audience, whereas genre, it just goes through the whole body. You react, you can’t control [your] reaction sometimes to genre filmmaking.” He cites the work of greats like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, whose movies always seem to exist within distinct physical and visual worlds: Carpenter’s teetering on the edge of the unreal, Cronenberg’s seemingly on the verge of bursting forth with grotesque body horror.

What Assayas pulls off in Personal Shopper is the same kind of manipulation of tone as in those directors’ films. And he does it almost entirely through Stewart, whose magnetic presence pulls you in every frame. We spend much of Personal Shopper watching Maureen personal shopping, as she carries out her days traveling from place to place, buying $2,000 handbags and designer tops for her boss. She doesn’t graze over objects like they’re delicacies. She handles things, actively parses them. Late in the film, we’ll see Maureen trying on her boss’s clothing and we’ll contemplate the way she thinks through what ultimately becomes an act of self-making. She chooses objects of clothing like a woman using the act of getting dressed to help her discover who she is.

Elsewhere, Maureen watches art history and spiritualism videos on her phone and traverses Paris on her motorbike. Assayas boils down her experience to a redundant pattern of essentials. It’s all a matter of observing Maureen interacting with the worlds around her: the modern digital world of text and image, the commercial world of fashion, the spectral world of ghosts.

In a long sequence undoubtedly coming soon to a .gif near you, Maureen begins to field spooky, sexually aggressive texts from an unknown number — messages like “I want you and I will have you” and “I’m here watching you.” A ghost? Maybe, but also a force. Over the course of multiple conversations, Maureen confides her desires to this ghost, who encourages her to risk the forbidden, such as trying on her boss’s clothes. The ghost — if that’s who’s texting her — wants her. Not physically, but rather to make contact; I still don’t know the difference. As Maureen texts, Assayas keeps our eyes trained on both the phone screen and her fingers, and we weirdly begin to intuit her emotional responses to the texts by the way her fingers hesitate and linger.

Stewart finds ways to make even the smallest gestures resonate with inner stirrings. It’s an unusually physicalized performance — the camera seems to cling to her every mood and movement. Personal Shopper is a movie full of uncanny presences, none more so than its star. “Film has a strange ability to capture some invisible dimension of the world,” Assayas has said. Personal Shopper doesn’t only capture some trace of that world. It asks us to believe in it.