“Personal Shopper,” A Ghost Story For the Modern Age

I hope Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart plan on making a dozen more films together; I would easily watch 100 more if I could. Stewart, who has been extremely selective with her roles since leaving the world of sparkling vampires behind, has found a match made in heaven with the French auteur. He directed her to a César award in Clouds of Sils Maria, making Stewart the first American actress to ever win one, and has once again captured a truly exceptional performance in Personal Shopper, which finally expanded into my town’s independent theater this past weekend. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since I had the pleasure of watching it on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I walked in knowing close to nothing about the film besides the fact that much of my Twitter timeline has been filled with raves about it since its continued to open in theaters around the country, which is probably the best way to experience it. In a genre that is filled with clichés and story beats that have beaten to death, Personal Shopper is a chilling and thought-provoking piece of work.

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Stewart plays Maureen, an American living in Paris who works as a personal shopper to a demanding celebrity named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Usually buried under thrifty sweaters or sporting a Lacoste polo, there’s an extreme disconnect between Maureen and her job. She’s far removed from the photoshoots and the glamour that dominates Kyra’s existence, and would rather be doing anything else. In her spare time, she moonlights as a medium trying to reach her recently deceased fraternal twin brother. Before he died of a genetic heart condition the two shared, they promised one another that whoever died first would send the other a sign from beyond the grave. So as she sifts through designer labels and priceless accessories and handbags, Maureen yearns to hear from her brother so she can leave all of this behind. 

Where things get interesting, however, is when Maureen’s desire to tap into her potential connection to the spirit world and reach the dead collides with her everyday life. An unknown number begins texting her, giving her reason to suspect someone, or something, is watching her every move. Is it her brother? Is it a malevolent spirit? Is it something else entirely? Is Maureen’s buried grief consuming her and leading her down a path that simply doesn’t exist? Much like he did with his last film, Assayas doesn’t answer everything, leaving much to the audience’s interpretation, which can be both maddening and extremely satisfying. 

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As I mentioned before, Stewart and Assayas have an undeniable chemistry together that makes for cinematic magic. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart acted with an incredible ease that perfectly utilized her cool movie star persona in a way the Twilight films or even Snow White & The Huntsman couldn’t. Holding your own against Juliette Binoche is no easy feat, yet Stewart did so without even breaking a sweat. Here, that same effortless charisma is perfectly employed throughout Stewart’s performance, even as she cowers in the corner from a demonic presence or rides her moped through the bustling streets of Paris. She fearlessly dives headfirst into being the film’s focal point, proving that not even a freaky, atypical ghost story is too much for her capable shoulders; she carries the film, never wasting a frame. It’s not my favorite she’s given (that would be Speak or even Still Alice) but it’s the type of performance that sways any doubts people who are still reeling from Twilight; she is the real deal. 

Beautifully shot by Yorick Le Saux, Personal Shopper is undeniably an Olivier Assayas film. He holds us in suspense, answering just the right amount of questions while leaving a few unanswered, slowly ticking up the intensity until the film’s stunning climax that takes an unexpected sharp, right turn. It’s a challenging sit, and because of that some will be put off. Those that are patient enough will ultimately find Personal Shopper to be rewarding, unlike anything that’s currently in theaters right now. Assayas has crafted a modernized love letter to films like Vertigo and Repulsion.

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Chilling, unnerving and unforgettable all at once, you won’t regret getting lost in Personal Shopper.

Grade: A-

Oscar Chances: Stewart won preliminary critics support with her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria, although did not secure nominations from the Globes, SAG or Oscar. I could see her performance here garnering the same kind of praise. If she campaigns this time, however, she could be a player in the Best Actress race.

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