It is certainly hard to categorise the latest film from Olivier Assayas, a most unconventional study of a young American woman living in Europe who works, as the title suggests, as a personal shopper for a celebrity, a job that consists entirely of sourcing suitable clothes – usually on loan – for her employer to wear at the endless appearances she makes each day. It is a job that might look appealing – and I can certainly imagine there are many people for whom spending their days day visiting fashion outlets and designers would be heaven – but Maureen (Kristen Stewart) finds it deeply unsatisfying, perhaps in large part due to the fact that Kyra, the person for whom she works, is a somewhat unpleasant entity. On the upside, Maureen’s work allows her plenty of time to moonlight as a medium, a skill-set she shares with her recently deceased brother, Lewis, who died from the same heart condition that also afflicts Maureen. Communicating with dead people aside, there are obvious similarities between Stewart’s character here and her role in The Clouds of Sils Maria, her previous collaboration with Assayas that netted her a Cesar Award. Obviously those who admonish the idea of communicating with the dead as hokum might find it hard to invest too much in Maureen’s efforts to make contact with Lewis; the pair having made a pact that whoever dies first is to send a message from the ‘other side’.
Despite the otherworldly elements within the narrative, descriptions of Personal Shopper as a ghost story are perhaps a little bit misrepresentative of what is going on as it is never entirely clear whether what transpires in Maureen’s efforts to communicate with Lewis are supernatural or psychological. Of course, those who don’t believe in the idea of ghosts and the like will no doubt see Maureen’s desire to communicate with Lewis as a psychological disorder rather than a genuine ability to engage with the spirits or other such manifestations of life after death. When she perceives a series of text messages as having been sent by Lewis, questions about her state of mind certainly do begin to manifest. The text messages soon take the form of a series of orders that push Maureen to challenge herself and engage in acts of rebellion, such as trying on the various outfits she has acquired for Kyra. It has to be said that, given that it is obvious to the viewer who is responsible for sending the text messages, it is a little surprising that Maureen is not able to identify the source until they reveal themselves.
As was the case in The Clouds of Sils Maria, things happen without explanation and it is often unclear what has transpired. Throughout the film, Maureen engages in several Skype calls with her boyfriend who is working in Oman, but there comes a point very late in the film that leads you to question whether he even exists. This is one of numerous ambiguities that Assayas (who also wrote the screenplay) leaves unresolved and his approach to editing also sees several scenes cut short without offering any definitive resolution to the sequence of events. Perfectly cast as the fidgety, mumbling Maureen, Stewart is in every scene and is a mesmerising presence on screen, often elevating an otherwise mundane moment with the merest gesture that emphasises her character’s discomfort with herself and the world around her.
With elements of a murder mystery, ghost story, psychological thriller and character study of a young woman struggling to understand her place in the world, Personal Shopper explores grief, loneliness, identity and the culture of celebrity that certainly places the film firmly within a contemporary world that we recognise. This film will be different things to different people and that may be both its greatest strength and biggest failing. It might be hard to pin down because, let’s face it, there aren’t too many films that combine elements of horror and fantasy within a Paris-set satire of the fashion industry, but it is not hard to enjoy it, in large part due to Stewart’s performance and Assayas’ willingness to experiment with form, both narratively and visually. A disjointed effort that asks more questions than it answers, Personal Shopper is an intriguing, if not completely successful, attempt to transcend genre at a time when so few filmmakers seem willing to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling.