French writer-director Olivier Assayas comes out with a new film about every two years. They’re always interesting, sometimes great, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to name him the best living French filmmaker, and one of the best and most versatile in the world. He excels in classic and modernist styles, in films with political themes, multi-character dramas, and offbeat movies exploring unusual aspects of culture. You might put his latest picture Personal Shopper in the last category, even though it’s hard to put an Assayas film in a slot.
Now Assayas has put American actress Kristen Stewart, who had an excellent supporting role in his last film, at the center of his new one. She plays Maureen Cartwright, whom we first see wandering through what appears to be a large deserted house, pausing nervously, opening the doors to a porch where she can go out and smoke, walking through the rooms looking for something. Gradually it dawns on us that she is trying to summon someone’s spirit or ghost, someone named Louis. At one point she feels a strong presence, something indefinable. This feeling passes away as quickly as it came.
This director doesn’t spell things out in conventional ways, but pretty soon we piece the story elements together. Louis was Maureen’s twin brother, who recently died from a congenital heart condition. He was a practicing medium who believed in life after death. Maureen thinks she has those skills as well, but in a lesser degree—she’s not so sure what she believes. The siblings had made a pact that whoever died first would send the other a sign from beyond the grave. She is looking for that sign in Louis’s old house in the time remaining before it is bought by a young couple, friends of Louis’s surviving partner Lara.
At the same time we see what Maureen does for a living—she’s a personal shopper for a celebrity named Kyra. In other words, she buys clothes, jewelry and accessories for Kyra, who is of course too busy to do it. It’s a job that Maureen hates, but one she is hanging onto until she can resolve the issue with her dead brother.
From this unusual premise, combining elements of the supernatural with attention to the surfaces of life symbolized by the ultra-fashionable clothes that Maureen buys and sometimes tries on, Assayas constructs a moody drama of isolation that eventually veers into something like horror film territory. The notion of ghosts or spirits is taken seriously—our main character even sees one at one point, and we do too. The tale is later complicated by her receiving a series of disturbing and seductive anonymous texts on her phone. This is the first time I’ve seen texting used to such dramatic effect in a film.
Beyond all this, however, is the intense inwardly focused presence of Maureen, strongly conveyed by Kristen Stewart, who is in almost every scene of the movie. At this point I expect, or at least hope, that most film watchers can recognize Stewart as the real deal, a serious and skillful performer. For me, this film delivered an unexpected punch, and I don’t think it would have worked with any other actress. Assayas cleverly shaped his material to his star. She doesn’t hold back one bit; she brings it to life in every frame, much of it alone on screen, notably in a few almost hypnotic sequences where she tries on the celebrity’s outfits by herself.
Personal Shopper aims at, and achieves, a subconscious effect. It both an intriguing puzzle and a stylistic tour de force.