Director Olivier Assayas lays his cards on the table pretty early on in Personal Shopper. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) approaches a large, somewhat abandoned house, talks to someone who we later discover is her dead twin brother’s ex-girlfirend, and then settles in to stay the night. She is there to wait for a sign from her brother from beyond the grave, and whilst she only hears creepy sounds and feels deeply uncomfortable, we see something appearing out of the darkness. Whether it’s a ghost or not – there is little ambiguity at first, but intriguingly Assayas plays around with this assumption later on – is perhaps unclear, but there’s no doubt that this film has an internal logic that includes supernatural elements.
Personal Shopper is, in this scene and many others, a straight up horror movie, with Kristen Stewart walking around places in the dark and getting freaked out by creepy sounds and loud bangs. But there’s a lot more to the film than just this, both with regards to the film’s subtext, and also literally with regards to what else happens. Assayas has almost certainly bitten off more than he can chew by trying to do a number of things at once in Personal Shopper – the film is also very much about grief, struggling with identity, the use of fashion to become someone else, and a straight up potboiler murder mystery – but whilst there are missteps, including some special effects moments that feel a tad silly even, there is more working here than isn’t.
The aforementioned ‘horror sequences’, for instance, are mostly superb; with Assayas using the frame fully in order to keep us guessing, and a great deal of excellent foley work to ensure we are unnerved both with the sounds we hear as well as what we see.
Personal Shopper is also incredibly compelling – the way in which it covers so many bases helps this by keeping you on your toes – with every reveal asking another question and the desire to know what’s going to happen next hanging over the end of every scene.
One scene in particular is also incredibly impressive for its gripping tension, sheer audaciousness and the fact that Assayas absolutely gets away with it. Part way through the film Maureen has to take a trip from Paris to the UK to pick up some clothes for her employer, and as she leaves she begins to receive text messages from an unknown number. What follows is a number of scenes of her travelling to the UK on the Eurostar, checking out the clothes and travelling back, but all the while she is receiving somewhat cryptic messages.
We are in the dark as much as she is as to the identity of the texter, and she is very shaken by the messages, believing that they could possibly even be from here dead brother. Scenes of her looking at messages and replying for around twenty minutes shouldn’t be anywhere near as gripping as they are, but they are positively anxiety-inducing thanks in large part to the way in which Assayas shoots and cuts the material much like a conventional but effective thriller, and Kristen Stewart absolutely nails the fragility and cracking up sensation that her character is dealing with.
Kristen Stewart is absolutely tremendous in Personal Shopper, with the film resting very much on her shoulders and having very few moments without her in them. It’s a challenging performance – her portrayal of a grieving sister is very affecting – and there are a number of times in which she is called upon to carry an idea or an emotion with little else in the script or direction to do the heavy lifting. She steps up to this challenge and then some though, showing once again that she is fine actress, if given the right material.
Personal Shopper is a mixed bag of a movie that is often frustrating as a result of Assayas, who also wrote the film, perhaps trying to tackle too many things at once. But it is never, ever boring, and Kristen Stewart manages to just about hold everything together with her strong central performance.