Ghost stories and French art films don’t typically co-exist in the mind of the modern moviegoer. But that doesn’t stop award-winning writer/director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) from orchestrating just that unlikely mash-up with Personal Shopper. Assayas seems unconcerned with catering to the expectations of even his most ardent admirers, as illustrated by this audacious yet frequently trying film.
That fearlessness and strength of vision may constitute the English-language Personal Shopper’s finest qualities. It begins in full horror genre-mode as a young woman named Maureen (Kristen Stewart) prepares to spend the night in a big, empty, creaky house in the French countryside, apparently hoping to make contact with a ghost. Very little is explained until later, long after the film takes its time establishing a supernatural vibe.
What eventually follows combines elements of horror movies, crime thrillers, murder mysteries, family dramas and even coming-of-age stories. But Personal Shopper doesn’t appear interested in blending these elements into a seamless whole. Red herrings and loose ends abound, leading to a deeply ambiguous ending that will leave many viewers cold.
But Assayas’ willingness to follow his own whims sets the stage for something unexpected and oddly compelling — a close examination of today’s digital-native “millennials” (at least as perceived by the 62-year-old director) through the film’s laserlike focus on the hopelessly self-absorbed and unhappy Maureen.
Making any of that possible is the singular presence of Stewart, who moved from carrying teen vampire franchise The Twilight Saga to being an indie film darling. She has performed admirably in movies like Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Assayas’ last film, The Clouds of Sils Maria — through which Stewart became the first American to receive a Cesar Award (the French equivalent to the Oscars) for Best Supporting Actress.
Stewart portrays Maureen as profoundly disconnected from every person in her life, including the recently deceased twin brother she half-expects to contact her from beyond the grave. Assayas said he would never have written this story if he hadn’t known Stewart personally, which is a comment on how closely identified the 27-year-old has become with whatever qualities one ascribes to her generation.
Maureen works as the personal shopper for a celebrated actress-socialite, and she’s simultaneously disgusted and attracted by the high fashion and superficial glitz of her employer’s life. She also moonlights as a medium to the spirit world, a gift that was shared by her twin. It’s makes perfect sense in the context of the film when the story veers into a 20-minute text exchange between Maureen and an anonymous stalker who may or may not be her deceased brother. At this point, the medium becomes the message — how else would a narcissistic millennial communicate with the dead but through her iPhone?
Assayas’ strange metaphysical thriller may be the first film to use the afterlife as a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation of day-to-day existence. That is the part of Personal Shopper that works best and seems most organic. There are a few long, private conversations between pairs of characters that provide almost all the expository information, but they also seem intentionally detached, artificial and weirdly out of sync. In the world of Personal Shopper, it seems the real ghosts may be counted among the living.
Personal Shopper is the closing night selection for this year’s French Film Festival at the Prytania Theatre, on April 27. The film begins its regular run on April 28 at both the Prytania and the The Broad Theater.