In the opening scene of Personal Shopper, a young woman drives up to the high gates of a large house. Once inside, she wanders through dark and empty corridors, framed only by moonlit windows, calling out the name Lewis. For a moment this feels familiar: as we watch her descend a dark flight of stairs and run through shadowy rooms across creaky floors, we seem to be easing into the faintly voyeuristic yet recognisable territory of a supernatural horror. Yet, just as we think we have the measure of this world, it shifts.
Strange, compelling, and at times frustrating, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is – appropriately for a modern-day ghost story – a film determined to disorient and unsettle both its characters and viewer throughout. Defying genre conventions and easy conclusions at every turn, it is somehow a postmodern pastiche of gothic horror, a nuanced portrait of grief, and an investigation of life under late capitalism – all at the same time. It may not always quite come together, but the film’s genre-blending is ultimately engaging, generating a sense of unease that lingers long beyond its closing credits.
Following her appearance in Assayas’ previous film, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart returns here as Maureen, a young American in Paris and the personal shopper of the film’s title. Her day job involves driving around Paris to pick up clothes for her demanding celebrity boss, Kyra. But this is neither the life she wants, nor the only one she inhabits. She is not, we discover, really in the city for work, but because it is where her twin brother Lewis died. He was a medium, and like him, Maureen believes she may have the ability to intuit the presence of the dead. She is waiting for him to send her a sign – she wants to believe there is a place from which he can still speak. When she’s not transporting bags of designer clothes across the city (and even sometimes when she is), she’s looking for him.
Much of what works about the film comes down to the subtle performance of Stewart, creating a character so engaging and complex that we cannot simply dismiss or laugh off the film’s supernatural bent. It is on one level a story about the pain of grief, and Stewart excels at conveying this, exuding a brittle vulnerability throughout. In a world of surfaces and screens, of glassy store-fronts and Skype phone-calls, Maureen stands out, carrying with her a sense of emotional gravity and half-buried agitation.
Even as she creates this sense of muted grief, Stewart resists sentimentalising Maureen, drawing out the character’s contradictions. Like the ghosts she sees, we come to feel that she is in some ways a shape-shifter, never fully settled in any one place or role. Maureen tells us that she will not be the conventional female horror-movie protagonist who ‘runs from a killer and hides’. Yet, even as she aims to avoid the implied passivity of the victim – portraying her act of waiting as an active choice – we cannot be sure that she is entirely in control. Stewart’s performance allows for both possibilities at once, hovering in the tense space between activity and passivity.
Maureen often seems to reject the trappings and gendered roles of the world in which she works, to somehow be apart from it. But, at one key moment, she tries on Kyra’s dresses, as if by wearing them she can – as she says – be someone else. This is no simple Cinderella story, where a woman is transformed via an expensive dress. Maureen does not explain fully why she is trying on Kyra’s clothes, or even who she wants to be through them – what seems to matter is the fantasy in and of itself, the possibility of being beyond the life she normally inhabits.
What are the reasons behind this fantasy – and why must it be realised by trying on designer dresses? Like much of the film, these questions remain unresolved. Yet, it is hard to believe that Assayas is not commenting on our contemporary moment. By making the designer shop and luxury flat the site where we encounter ghosts – not just the haunted house – he brings together the tropes of genres that we usually would not meet; the point is that they are more connected than they seem. It is no coincidence that late capitalist society is often described as spectral: there is perhaps something even more ghostly about the synthetic and mediated nature of our relationships to each other and ourselves than the computer-generated appearances of Assayas’s film. The fantasy of new and different lives might seem liberating, but perhaps it also risks condemning us to living provisionally, believing we must buy the privilege of becoming something new.
Indeed, while Maureen presents her supernatural encounters in a disarmingly matter-of-fact tone, the real characters in the film often appear more fleetingly than the ghosts themselves. Travelling around the world for work, they are always on the move. Her relationships are frequently mediated through screens of different kinds – her conversations with her boyfriend on Skype, her texts to her employer. Are these, the film asks, more real than the emotionally-charged moments of potential contact with her brother? Sometimes the distinction between the supernatural and the real is entirely unclear. Central to the plot is a creepy, mysterious figure from whom Maureen receives texts; is this a ghost, a real person, the embodiment of internal desires that Maureen does not want to own?
Perhaps the answers here don’t matter. Like its protagonist, the film inhabits more than one world – and this is what makes it both strange and interesting. It hints at social commentary, at psychological investigation, and at supernatural horror, without every fully realising any of these strands or genres. We never know quite what it – or its ghosts – are trying to say. Revelling in ambiguities and uncertainties, the film not only invites us to puzzle out its mysteries, but also asks us to explore the very source of our unease.