Movie Review – Personal Shopper

Directed by Olivier Assayas

Starring Kristin Stewart, Nora von Waldstatten, and Lars Eidinger

Maureen Cartwright is waiting. She’s waiting for a sign from her deceased twin brother so she can leave Paris and her “stupid” job as a personal shopper for an impossibly difficult fashionista. She’s waiting to be reunited with her boyfriend in the middle east. She’s waiting for her life to begin or, perhaps, to end from the congenital heart defect she and her brother shared. She’s also waiting to make a human connection, with the living at least. She has no problem connecting with the dead. Maureen, like her late brother, Lewis, is a medium. In Personal Shopper, French director Olivier Assayas’ intriguing new art house thriller, the spirits of the dead follow her around like lost puppies.

There’s something wonderfully satisfying about a good old-fashioned ghost story, the kind where things go bump in the night and the faint sobs of mistresses echo through the cavernous interiors of great mansions, where doors and windows mysteriously slam themselves shut and unexplained breezes blow through shuttered rooms. Understated, old-school mood-pieces like The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting of Hell House, The Changeling, and Robert Wise’s psychological spook-show masterpiece, The Haunting, may not be particularly scary by today’s ratcheted-up standards, but they get under your skin and linger in the back of your brain in a way that many noisier exercises in horror simply can’t.

Personal Shopper begins with its feet firmly rooted in those ghostly traditions. Its opening scene is a classic of the genre. Maureen, (Kristen Stewart), has come to spend the night alone in the old house where her late brother lived. She hopes, for her own benefit, to detect his “presence” there, or to reassure the young couple about to purchase it that the place isn’t haunted. With its dark wood panels and creaky wooden floor, its sticky doors, and windows that only open with a good shove, it’s one of the genuinely creepy houses in movie history. This is no phony, over-polished Hollywood set. It has the look and feel of a real, late 19th, early 20th century mansion. Arrayas directs with a masterful hand here, filming in almost total darkness with little to no dialogue and only the subtlest hints of the supernatural near the scene’s end. Personal Shopper doesn’t toy with paranormal ambiguities for long, however. There are far more explicit renderings of apparitions to come, leaving little doubt that these are supernatural manifestations and not mere psychological abstractions ala Henry James.

But Arrayas, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, has more in mind than a simple two-hour scare-fest. The film’s middle section takes an unexpected turn with a striking subplot about Maureen’s employer (Nora von Waldstatten) and her lover (Lars Eidinger), who, like Maureen, finds himself excluded from her life. These scenes tantalizingly explore Maureen’s insecurities and carefully suppressed desires, notably in a surprisingly compelling, if overextended, sequence that takes place largely on the text screen of Maureen’s phone.  Personal Shopper isn’t just about the supernatural world, but the wired-in one that separates us from ourselves and each other.

Maureen is a millennial immersed in technology, but her life is one of constant disconnect. With her iPhone ever by her side, she connects to it more than the people in her life. Real-life human relationships are often physically out of reach – her dead brother, her out-of-country boyfriend, the mysterious texter who taunts and tempts her, the boss who never has time for her. They leave behind notes and converse with her over garbled Skype signals. “I need more,” she tells one of the teasing ghosts, hoping for a less subtle sign of its presence.  But this isn’t just Maureen grasping at spirits, it’s a metaphor for her life.

Assayas, true to his roots as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, the highly influential French magazine of film criticism that set a fire under Andrew Sarris’ butt and inspired a whole generation of American critics and filmmakers, wears the “auteur” label like a badge. His cool, cerebral style stands in bald contrast to the usual hyperkinetic, over-edited, over-scored supernatural thrillers that dominate the genre. Indeed, much of Personal Shopper is so low key, only dogs can hear it. He has no need for extended exposition, often presenting his scenes without explanation, leaving the details for later. This backhanded, ironic approach gives perfect expression to Maureen’s detached existence, but it can, at times, make the film, and its main character, difficult for audiences to plug into.

Likewise, Stewart, a solid and promising actress, is restrained, sometimes to a fault, keeping her distance from both the camera and the audience. In this, she is the perfect match for Maureen who has been warned by her doctor that excessive emotions can trigger her heart condition. But when she does express emotion, it can seem forced and actorly.

Personal Shopper isn’t entirely free of the typical ghost movie clichés, especially when it comes to metaphysical speechifying. And it’s not above occasional silliness that comes with these types of stories (Do ghosts really need to take elevators?) The plot is sometimes confusing, (Ghosts being invisible and all, it can be difficult to sort them all out.) But like Maureen’s apparitions, Personal Shopper follows you around, out of the theater, taking residence in your mind, haunting, unsettling, waiting…

Score: 83/100