A ghost story that takes place in the fashion underworld of Paris.
“Personal Shopper”’s IMDb synopsis is so deceptively simple, those not familiar with the psychologically complex films of French director Olivier Assayas may assume that this is just another cheapo horror flick churned out by the House of Blum, in the vein of “Insidious,” “Oculus,” or “Jessabelle.” Considering that the lead star is known for a certain little vampire franchise, I wouldn’t blame those suckers either. Assayas seems to have found his muse in Kristen Stewart, who became the first American actress to win the prestigious Cesar award for her supporting role in the director’s 2015 drama “Clouds of Sills Maria.”
So folks are either in for a major disappointment or a pleasant surprise. While “Personal Shopper” is indeed a ghost story, it does not contain your usual murderous talking dolls, demonic clowns, or vampire fangs. One could argue that all the makings of a stereotypical horror flick are here – a dilapidated house with loudly creaking doors; a young woman hell-bent on making contact with the spiritual world, a jump scare or two, a ghost even – yet they are seen through a sophisticated, minimalist prism, one cloaked in a foreboding atmosphere of building tension, which compensates for outright shocks.
Assayas’ film is first and foremost a hypnotic rumination on life and death, social status and art, mourning and moving on, faith and identity, and our connection to our loved ones, which transcends the spiritual realm. It’s a tough task to pull off, and in less capable hands it could have easily slipped into a laughable disaster, but with Olivier’s assured directorial grip, honed by three decades of filmmaking, and Kristen’s take-no-prisoners central performance, “Personal Shopper” leaves you breathless. The experienced helmer subverts horror film staples, insinuating rather than showing, posing questions rather than answering them. He understands that the human imagination has the ability to conjure monsters infinitely more disturbing than any of the translucent deities in, say, James Wan’s 2013 hit.
Stewart plays Maureen, a self-proclaimed medium, whom we first see dropped off at a spooky Paris mansion by Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz). She hears noises at night and sees a glimpse of an apparition. “Lewis?” she calls into the darkness. Unlike idiotic Hollywood characters that venture into the clearly-dangerous unknown, Maureen has a purpose, and the spirit seems somewhat benevolent. “You must make contact,” Lara insists next morning.
Maureen also works as a personal shopping assistant for the uptight fashionista Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), picking out the bitch’s expensive jewelry and clothing. Maureen resembles a ghost herself, all pale, trying on Kyra’s shoes, picking up things left behind by the uptight boss, standing in for her photo shoots… The girl becomes so immersed in her research of the spiritual realm, the world around her dims, including her boyfriend, who tempts her to come visit him by the seaside. But Maureen is waiting, always waiting, for a sign, for closure, for Lewis to respond to her, her own identity dissipating.
Who Lewis is, I’ll let you discover. Twenty-five minutes in, it’s not a major plot twist. Most reviews will probably spoil it, but in this particular case, I think it’s best to leave most things unspoken, mirroring Assayas’ style. I will, however, say that the plot gets increasingly and deliciously complex. Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra’s boy toy, comes in contact with an angry female spirit and starts receiving creepy texts. The world begins to close in on the young woman, with the manipulative mysterious texter increasingly threatening – until the discovery of a grisly murder scene, and Maureen’s closure (of sorts) at the heartrending finale.
“You need to avoid physical efforts and intense emotions,” Maureen’s doctor advises her. The film’s dialogue, written by Assayas, is sparse and, it seems, partially improvised. “When you’re a medium, you’re just attuned to a vibe,” Maureen says. “It’s an intuition… a feeling… you see this door, and it’s only slightly ajar.” Determined to summon Lewis’ spirit when it shows itself in the form of a running faucet, Maureen exclaims, “I’m gonna need more from you.”
“Personal Shopper” raises fascinating questions about the inspiration behind forward-thinking works of art. It’s filled with moments of unbearable tension, birthed by great characterization and intricate plotting, as opposed to cheap shock tactics. There’s that unforgettable, nerve-racking text exchange on a train to and from London, with the beautiful cities fading to a blur (the power of texting!). Maureen’s state of mind is so vividly portrayed – and depicted by Yorick Le Saux’ stunning camerawork – the films sinks its fangs into you deeper than Edward could ever muster. And this film is weirder than any beast in the epic Meyer trilogy. It has an enigmatic, unpredictable pace of its own, with unexpected fade-outs, plot detours, purposefully unresolved plot points and a meticulous attention to detail. I loved every second of it.
On occasion, it does verge on the ridiculous, especially when the apparition shows up – a cross between the library ghost in “Ghostbusters” and “Donnie Darko”’s liquid spears. Lines like, “She vomited ectoplasm and then she left,” don’t help either. Somewhat reminiscent of Brit Marling’s fare, it’s filled with dialogues about the soul, other realms, etc. There’s even an extended Victor Hugo flashback/interlude, beautifully written but, like, huh?! I reiterate: I loved every second of it. Here’s a director that goes for it, takes chances and ends up with mesmerizing entertainment. He deconstructs a typical ghost story into its most basic elements, but also emphasizes all the mournful aspects inherent to a ghost story, skillfully avoiding stereotypes in the process. Hats off.
Final note. Stewart really gets a chance to show off her acting chops here, folks. No more pouty Bella or even-more-pouty Snow White. Fully shedding her “Twilight” persona, Stewart inhabits her chain-smoking character, in constant waiting, drawn to forbidden things, reserved, focused, very upfront, but also vulnerable and questioning her own sanity. Stewart and Assayas may just be the new Scorsese and DiCaprio, or Hitchcock and Kelly, leaving the days of Edward and Bella far in the past.
“Personal Shopper” opens at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas & Plano Friday, March 24th