In her last collaboration with director Oliver Assayas, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Kristen Stewart’s character literally disappeared halfway through the movie.
While watching the pair’s next film, the haunting “Personal Shopper,” one half-expects her to vanish before our eyes in this movie, too.
“Personal Shopper” is a ghost story, elliptical and surprising, and it’s not always clear that Stewart isn’t the ghost. The film is out now in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection.
Assayas says in an interview on the Criterion disc that he wanted to make a ghost story that was quintessentially French. That included the Paris setting, and references back to the 19th century, when Europeans would regularly hold seances and even craft crude portraits in which their deceased loved ones “appeared.” In “Personal Shopper,” the ghosts seem to be all around us.
Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, an American living in Paris who works as a personal shopper to a wealthy celebrity philanthropist, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz). Since Lara is too famous to go out in public, Maureen goes out and buys expensive clothes and jewelry for her. We hardly see Lara in the film, and she hardly sees Maureen, and each is an almost spectral presence in the life of the other.
Maureen’s other line of work is as a medium. In the opening scene, she’s staying in an abandoned country house trying to sense if there’s a ghost living there. But Maureen is also trying to make contact with her late twin brother, Lewis, who was also a medium. The siblings made a pact that if one of them died, the other would send a message from beyond.
What jolts her to life is that she starts receiving text messages from an unknown caller, who asks her probing, vaguely menacing questions, and pushes her to take small risks, like trying on Lara’s clothes without her permission. Are the text messages coming from some creepy stalker? Or is this Lewis? Assayas brilliantly captures the feel of text messages, drawing suspense out of seeing those three gray dots pulsing as the responder is typing, not knowing what’s coming next.
“Personal Shopper” truly defies genre. There are scenes as scary and ominous as those in any horror movie, but just when you think you’ve figured out what sort of movie you’re watching, it becomes a naturalistic drama. Assayas deliberately refuses to stick to any single set of rules involving the supernatural — a ghost might be a text message, or a glass suspended in midair, or a spectral white lady vomiting ectoplasm onto Maureen.
Stewart navigates each change in tone perfectly, moving smoothly from disaffected millennial to terrified victim convincingly. Anybody who still thinks of her as “that girl from ‘Twilight’” is about five years behind the curve of one of our best, most present actresses.
The collision of high fashion and horror, ghosts and IMing is a strange and intoxicating one, and Assayas deliberate leaves things open-ended, not shining a light into the dark corners. At least not in the movie. During one of the bonus features on the Criterion disc, featuring the film’s press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Assayas politely explains away the entire movie as Stewart looks on incredulously. So, uh, spoiler alert?
Actually, I found Assayas’ explanation rather unsatisfying, and prefer the film’s ambiguity — rather like those 19th-century Europeans who embraced the supernatural in the face of reason and logic. Those dark corners are too entrancing to ever be lit.