Kristen Stewart attempts to contact the spirit of her deceased twin brother in French director Olivier Assayas’ haunting rumination on grief, glamour and the male gaze, Personal Shopper.
By Nick Milligan
In his 2014 character study Clouds of Sils Maria, veteran French writer-director Olivier Assayas cast Kristen Stewart as Valentine, the loyal personal assistant to Juliette Binoche’s Hollywood actress Maria Enders. The two shared a complex relationship, one tinged with tension both personal and sexual.
In his next film, Personal Shopper, in a role written specifically for Stewart, Assayas again places the actress on the periphery of celebrity, this time as Maureen, a personal shopper for famous model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten).
But Maureen is not emotionally invested in Kyra’s career in the same way Valentine is for Maria’s. Maureen is preoccupied with making contact with her dead twin brother Lewis. The two shared both a congenital heart defect and a medium’s ability to converse with spirits of the dead. Before Lewis’ passing, the twins made a pact that the first to die would attempt to contact the other from beyond the grave, reassuring them that they’re at peace.
When we meet Maureen, she’s spending a restless night in the big empty rural house where Lewis died, heeding every bump in the night, desperately waiting for the sign that he promised to send. During the ensuing days she drifts between fashion designers, gathering the cream of haute couture for her needy boss, every so often flirting with the idea of trying on the expensive clothing at her disposal.
One day in Kyra’s apartment Maureen meets German man Ingo (Lars Eidinger), who is having a secret affair with Kyra but takes a keen interest in Maureen and her supernatural mission to make contact with Lewis. Later Maureen receives unnervingly cryptic text messages from an unknown phone number, and wonders whether her departed brother might be playing games (a device used to similarly intriguing affect in Paul Verhoeven’s recent masterpiece Elle). Her desire for the stranger to be the ghost of her twin begins to take her town a potentially treacherous path.
Personal Shopper fluidly shifts between supernatural creeper and psychological thriller, all the while remaining a gentle and strangely hypnotic meditation on grief and the allure of the unknown. Assayas deftly achieves what many directors struggle with – the creation of a dream logic where rules can be broken and conventions subverted, all while keeping the viewer onside. You never feel like you have a handle on where the narrative is leading you, a sensation increasingly alien to the cinematic experience.
A very steady hand is required to deal with such potentially absurd material, and during Personal Shopper you can only sit back and admire Assayas’ measured approach and steely restraint. He stretches scenes until they descend into voyeurism, passively lingering over Stewart as she travels between London and France and then, more intimately, as she lays topless on a doctor’s examination table, undresses to try on Kyra’s slinkier clothing and later masturbates in her boss’ bed.
In Stewart the director has found the perfect muse, an exquisite and ambiguous beauty to immerse in this morphing dreamscape. Assayas is richly rewarded with his casting of the sometimes maligned performer who, along with Clouds of Sils Maria, has given two of her finest performances under his non-intrusive direction. Both parts are written to Stewart’s strengths, playing to her naturalism and ability to reduce fantastical material to an almost serene simplicity. She’s immensely believable, constantly reductive in her portrayal and effortlessly beguiling. As in many of her other roles, Stewart keeps part of Maureen partitioned and elusive – a puzzle never quite solved by the time the credits roll.
The film, too, is a thematic Rubik’s Cube. While relatively straight forward in its narrative, there is a lot to unravel in Personal Shopper and its haunted central character. The deft chills delivered in its final stanza ensure that the film lingers with you after its finale. It could be Assayas’ rumination on the nature of male oppression, emotional blackmail and the male gaze – Maureen certainly experiences these elements from two distinct angles. But aesthetics play an equally large role in this stoic malaise, whether it be Maureen’s role in applying them to Kyra’s glamorous lifestyle or her attraction to these fine garments and the escapism they provide. Indeed, the intricacies of Stewart’s own beauty, which unfurl before the director’s floating, apparitional camera, are equally crucial to this unwaveringly original production.