Personal Shopper, French writer/director Olivier Assayas’ second consecutive English-language film, is difficult to categorise. It’s an indefinable mixture of classic ghost story, mystery, thriller, and somber study of loss and alienation, with plot twists that are impossible to predict. As slow and subtle as many of his previous films, it is saved from occasional tedium by the frequent, unexpected turns and unanswered questions.
The film is essentially a one-woman show, featuring Kristen Stewart as the central character, Maureen, a woman struggling with grief and hopelessness after the death of her twin brother, Lewis. Following Stewart’s critically acclaimed performance in Assayas’ previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria, he offered her the newly written role of Maureen, trusting her ability to handle the subtle play of emotion required, as well as the demands of a character who appears in virtually every scene in the film. She does not disappoint; the role is ideal for Stewart’s understated, naturalistic style of acting. Additional characters are decidedly supporting roles, providing little more than a backdrop for Maureen’s existential struggles and the events that relate to them.Maureen is the titular personal shopper, whose job is to search out suitable clothing and accessories for her employer, a wealthy, spoiled Parisian celebrity. Maureen despises the triviality of her job; her focus is on her recently deceased brother. She remains tied to Paris because it was the site of Lewis’ death. It is revealed early in the film that Maureen regards herself as a medium, a fact that might be used to make the character laughably gullible, but instead is taken seriously by the characters associated with Maureen.
Maureen’s angst over her brother Lewis’ death is compounded by the fact that he died of the same heart condition Maureen shares. She fears her own death, and longs for assurance of an afterlife, or at least for some sense of meaning to her own existence. Her longing and uncertainty colours every aspect of her life, taking the joy from her existence and preventing her from making genuine connections with other people.When Maureen is asked to use her supposed talents as a medium to investigate an old house for a couple planning to buy it, the film takes a surprising turn, presenting a genuine, unabashed ghostly apparition. Is it meant to be genuine, or a figment of Maureen’s imagination? That question follows us through a series of events, ranging from disconcerting to alarming. In one extended scene, Maureen receives a series of strange, increasingly ominous text messages, from an unknown source, which we, like Maureen herself, are left uncertain about, unable to clearly identify as either ghostly or mundane.
Just as the vaguely menacing events lead us to an all-too-worldly threat, and Maureen seems prepared to stop waiting for a message from her brother and move on with her life, the film takes one last, perverse turn, leaving both Maureen and the audience deep in a state of ultimate confusion and doubt.
The acting is flawless, as is Assayas’ direction, which won him the directing award at Cannes. It is perhaps the story itself which is not for everyone. A viewer must have patience with a slowly developing plot, and a tolerance for the mysterious and ambiguous, to enjoy this carefully crafted, highly unusual film.
For further viewing:
Ikiru, the late, great Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama, follows a dying businessman as he attempts to find meaning in life.
I Heart Huckabees (2004) is unique; not just an existential film, but a film about existentialism. Better still, a comedy about existentialism.