Olivier Assayas concocts a heady atmosphere here; Personal Shopper is spooky and cold throughout, thanks in part to its superb sound design (with all those bumps and smashes mysteriously occurring in a grand old mansion) and also thanks to the terrific central performance by Kristen Stewart. Her character, Maureen, seems oddly disconnected from the world; she is a clothes-purchasing assistant to a celebrity – an American in Paris – and we spend close to two hours in her company, but although we discover some things about her life and see interactions with friends, can we honestly say that we ‘know’ her by the end? She is nervy, grieving and in search of her own identity, and she doesn’t give much away. She is also intriguing: can she really communicate with the spirit world, and in particular her recently-deceased brother, who owned the mansion in question?
Personal Shopper is a difficult film to pin down, as it comfortably slips between genres, without much in the way of fuss. It is on the one hand an existential drama largely set within the fashion industry and the celebrity world, though it’s apparent from the off that Assayas wishes to deglamorise fashion, or at least the purchasing of it (if not the actual act of wearing). It’s also a chiller, a genuinely unnerving ghost story that leaves its fantastical phenomena unexplained – we see a wispy spirit and ‘hear’ the same things that Maureen hears, but even by the end it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to believe in these interactions or judge Stewart’s character as someone who is coming apart at the seams. The standout moments involve her text exchanges with an unknown person, which she believes is a spirit of some kind; as Peter Bradshaw rightly pointed out in the Guardian, one of these – in which a flurry of texts arrive after a phone is switched on – is the kind of thrilling coup de grace that Hitchcock would have been proud of, and genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, while the whole Eurostar section, when Maureen is first contacted, is surprisingly gripping given that we’re mostly watching someone send, receive and read text messages on a train. This is worth seeing simply on account of the superb central performance, but it’s well worth your time if you enjoy filling in the gaps around the edges of a story, and it’s another smart, intriguing film from this talented director. (****½)