A grief story within a ghost story, Personal Shopper simmers slowly, letting its narrative and emotional beats unfurl with measured confidence, anchored in a pinnacle performance from Kristen Stewart.
Though some will undoubtedly disagree because it’s not fast, explosive, loud, or thrilling enough, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a perfect example of a well-oiled, fine-tuned, thematically adept filmmaking experience. It’s an oft-regurgitated old adage that everything in films is a choice, nothing we see on screen is there by chance etc., but rarely is the minutiae so thoroughly arranged, so well thought out, so cleverly constructed, as in this film. Let me explain.
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, an American living in Paris, working as a personal shopper for a high-profile French celebrity by day, and trying to make contact with her dead twin brother by night. Maureen is a medium, as was her brother, who died before the events of the film. Maureen refuses to leave Paris until she receives some sort of sign from her twin, some sort of message from the beyond, so, she spends her nights in the house he owned, waiting. The sharpest minds can already piece together what the underlying theme here is, but let me reveal another puzzle piece—Maureen’s job.
We know Maureen is a personal shopper as the title states, but what does that entail? Throughout the film, she flits from boutique to boutique, purchasing top of the rack wardrobe for her affluent mistress, eyeballing sizes and colors of labels most of us never see on a day-to-day basis. Yet, for all her close contact, she’s under strict orders not to, under any circumstances, try any of her boss’s clothes on herself. We’re getting a clearer picture, but the last piece of the puzzle still needs placing: the ghosts.
Whether floating around as a foggy ectoplasmic discharge or taking human shape, ghosts and ghostly apparitions assail Maureen during her night stays at her twin brother’s empty home. They tear through the house, scraping the walls, slamming doors and windows, projecting a general sense of torment and anguish, causing the same to poor Maureen. Yet, none of these spirits is her brother. Strangely, the person she most wants to contact is nowhere to be found.
Now the puzzle is complete, so what do we see? A run-of-the-mill ghost story? A by-the-numbers mystery with a supernatural twist? No, it’s a genius portrait of grief convincingly disguised as something more conventional. Maureen is a shattered soul plagued by sadness over her brother’s death and the loss of identity that came with it. She’s floating in an empty abyss of her own, grasping for strands with which to tie together a tenuous new identity. Twin relationships are often characterized by a leader-follower dynamic. One twin inevitably becomes the dominant personality, the deciding force in most interactions and decisions, while the other, content simply in proximity, surrenders their sense of self to the leading power. Maureen is the follower, and, with the loss of her leader, must now, from the shattered ruins of her grief, piece together the identity she never had.
This identity destruction and resurrection is a fascinating concept for discussions in psychology circles, but to present it onscreen almost completely through visual cues and character motivation is a master-stroke of filmmaking. Every aspect of Maureen’s character reinforces of this idea: her job is to dress another individual, to surrender her identity and inhabit that of another, more powerful person; she capitulated to her brother when he was alive, following his spotlight; she lets a stranger manipulate her into further disassociating from herself by preying on her fractured identity and her need for closure with her twin. And all this complexity, which I can only imagine is a tall order to exude through expression, physicality, and movement alone, is executed in a fantastically subtle performance from Kristen Stewart. This is genre filmmaking at its most effective, using horror conventions to mask a deeper story, relying on our knowledge to fill in the blanks. It’s refreshing to view a film that treats its viewers as equals, dropping breadcrumbs instead of the entire loaf, letting us follow the trail ourselves rather than pushing us from behind. No spoon-feeding here.
With Assayas’ directing technique and Stewart’s phenomenal realism, Personal Shopper treats us to a sensitive, subtle portrait of a broken young women, struggling to rebuild herself anew with only half the original pieces, for the rest have been consigned to the void. The ghosts rip from the holes she cannot fill, and, though they will always serve as reminders of her loss, they must be released for her to finally become her independent self.