If you’re looking for easy answers and tidy statements, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is not the film for you. Writer-director Assayas reteams with Kristen Stewart (the co-star of his previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria) for a genre-busting existential investigation that flirts with becoming a ghost story and a stalker thriller.
At its core, though, Personal Shopper focuses on its teasingly allegorical character study of Stewart’s Maureen, who goes dead inside in her job as a Paris-based personal shopper for famous-for-being-famous celebrity Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen finds herself more compelled by her current side job as a medium attempting to contact the late former inhabitant of a near-empty manor. Maureen’s no huckster: she has every reason to want to believe. The ghost she seeks is that of her twin brother Lewis.
The twins’ connection—which may or may not extend beyond the grave—includes a shared heart condition (the one that claimed Lewis’ life) and the pursuit of spiritualism (Lewis, too, was a medium). Like the great magician Harry Houdini, Lewis promised to attempt contact, after death, from the other side. And so, whenever asked what she’s doing in Paris, Maureen always gives the same answer: “I’m waiting.”
Seeming signs do begin to emerge, and on a few striking occasions, the story busts open with an apparent supernatural vision or a definitively present bloody horror. A middle passage of the film finds Maureen contending with disturbing anonymous texts, and although she threatens to block her stalker, she finds herself compelled to respond in the hope that this one of her life’s mysteries may be the one she solves.
Personal Shopper’s defiant refusal to settle into any one conventional narrative formula contributes to its theme of modern life as an out-of-body experience of dubious, certainly slippery meaning. The title suggests other readings: Maureen is hunting for the selves and identities of other people, and meaningful connections with them (she also has a boyfriend whose work in the Sultanate of Oman means he must appear to her as another ghostly apparition, via Skype).
Maureen also, in a real sense, finds herself searching for her own personality, for what or whom deserves her attention in life, for what she believes, for what she will admit to herself and about herself, for what leaps she will eventually commit to taking. As she drifts through high-end fashion houses and the well-appointed apartments of her boss (herself an insubstantial presence), Maureen faces a constant temptation to break Kyra’s one rule: don’t try on the clothes. But do clothes make the woman? And can one really shop for personality (especially if someone else is doing it for you?)?
Assayas’ version of a horror film, then, of a ghost story, is a meditation about our own ephemerality on this supposedly corporeal plane. In the end, the truly inescapable horrors are, sure, okay, death, but also living with one’s own mind and the uncertainties of human existence.