Before premiering his latest film for North American audiences in Toronto, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas had this to say about his lead actress/collaborator, Kristen Stewart: “When I won Best Director at Cannes I felt she should’ve been up there with me… She takes me—drags me—to places I never thought possible.” It was fitting because Personal Shopper feels like a place audiences have never been before either.
Opening with the titular shopper, Maureen (Stewart), investigating her recently deceased twin brother’s home for remnants of his spirit—as part of a bargain she struck to communicate with him from the other side—and then transitioning into her shopping duties for fashion model, Kyra, that have her traversing all the finest brands that can be found in Paris (…a lot), the actual narrative thrust takes place somewhere in between the two, as each of Maureen’s lives (one as an amateur spiritual medium, the other as an apathetic personal shopper) is slowly but surely infiltrated by an unknown hostile presence.
At once an existential meditation on grief, identity, desire, and technology, Personal Shopper seemingly melds form and genre until each bleeds into the next in truly astonishing ways, fashioning a uniquely bizarre experience that finds Assayas operating in the filmic realms of what can only be described as a Euroart Wes Craven. Tonally unhinged, Assayas jumps from familial melodrama to haunted house horror to Hitchcockian thriller (sometimes in a single scene!) until, similarly to Maureen, we don’t know which way is up let alone what to believe—which works well for the film as it interestingly frames the spiritual threats as such a very real concern that whether we believe in them or not doesn’t even have time to come into question. The soon-to-be-famous ominous texting sequence, revamping the voyeuristic thriller for the iPhone generation, is the most notable sequence but there’s one static long take closer to the finale that makes you consider what James Wan’s Conjuring movies might look like if they had much higher ambitions.
And at the center of it all is the consistently fascinating Kristen Stewart, whose performance not only guides the piece but locks it into place as everything around her suggests it could fly off the rails at any second. Playing like an extension of the film itself her performance is deeply absorbing and transient simultaneously, her loaded expressions/movements grounding even the film’s silliest moments with a sense of terror and curiosity. And that curiosity is absolutely vital as ultimately this is a film about exploration: personal, sexual and spiritual.
Not entirely sure it earns its final moments but Personal Shopper, to the bitter end, is a cinematic shape-shifter that refuses to be defined, and it’s hard not to admire that.