The pieces don’t all fit in Personal Shopper, but that’s much of the fun of writer-director Olivier Assayas’s enigmatic tale of a young woman who may be in contact with her dead twin brother. Or maybe she’s being stalked by an unseen assailant. Or maybe it’s both.
Assayas and star Kristen Stewart first worked together on 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, and their new film can be seen as a vague companion piece, exploring some of the same issues with a similarly opaque air. This time, she plays Maureen, an American living in Paris who works for a glamorous but demanding star named Kyra whom we only see from afar. Kyra is but one of two ghosts in Maureen’s life, the other being Lewis, her twin who was a medium before his death from a rare heart condition. Maureen feels connected to her brother for obvious reasons—plus, they share the same condition—and she’s convinced that he will try to contact her from the Great Beyond. So strong is her belief that she spends nights in his old house, hoping that he’ll appear.
The mystery of whether Lewis is reaching out to Maureen is but one flowing through Personal Shopper, but perhaps the film’s greatest puzzle is what her fixation on her brother has to do with either her unglamorous, unfulfilling job or the unexpected text messages she starts receiving from a stranger, who seems to know her whereabouts to a disturbingly intimate degree. Assayas won’t reveal the connections, letting these different strands of Maureen’s life represent competing elements of her daily grind. At first, the only thing they have in common is that the same character is experiencing them all, but as the film rolls along, we begin wondering if perhaps there are invisible links to these seemingly unrelated occurrences.
As in Sils Maria, Stewart here plays a bright, somewhat directionless young woman biding her time in the employ of someone famous. But the films gnaw on the same themes, too. In Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, Stewart seems to be commenting on life as a celebrity—how it can be a surreal, slightly disorienting odyssey that leaves one feeling trapped under glass. Personal Shopper’s house-of-mirrors narrative is beguilingly perplexing to the viewer, but we soon see how it’s hell on Maureen, who can’t find any equilibrium in her unsettled life.
To attempt to explain the direction Personal Shopper takes is merely to regurgitate plot points that don’t sound like they belong in the same film. But Assayas is working on a deeper, more metaphoric level, abandoning strict narrative cause-and-effect logic to give us fragments of Maureen’s life refracted through conflicting experiences. For instance, her impulsive desire to try on Kyra’s beautiful clothes appears to come from nowhere, but it’s tied emotionally to her sense of frustration that Lewis can’t or won’t communicate with her. Nothing happens in this film as a direct result of what came before, which explains why the sudden appearance of suggestive, potentially dangerous text messages can be interpreted as a literal threat or as some strange cosmic manifestation of other, subtler anxieties.
Personal Shopper encourages a sense of play, moving from moody ghost story to tense thriller to (out of the blue) erotic character study. But that genre-hopping (not to mention the movie’s willfully inscrutable design) is Assayas’s way of bringing a lighthearted approach to serious questions about grieving and disillusionment. The juxtaposition isn’t jarring or glib—if anything, Personal Shopper is all the more entrancing because it won’t sit still, never letting us be comfortable in its shifting narrative.
If Stewart isn’t as singular here as she was in Sils Maria, she continues to be a wonderfully unfathomable presence. In that film, it was Juliette Binoche’s aging star who took center stage, whereas this time it’s Stewart’s character who is very much alone in the spotlight, making Maureen an uneasy protagonist, unsure about everything around her. Is her brother watching over her? Is the stalker, who seems to know when she’s on the train or when she’s at home? Stewart’s beauty is used as a mask to conceal loneliness, a feeling only emphasized by Maureen’s passionless Skype conversations with a boyfriend working in the Middle East. Maureen isn’t having a breakdown, but some sort of slow-motion evolution is amidst.
So what happens in the end? I can’t say—not just because I loathe spoilers but because, quite honestly, I’m not sure I know. But tonally and thematically, it fits with the restless anxiety that’s informed much of Personal Shopper. No one may be able to decipher this movie completely—perhaps not even Assayas himself. But its power comes from its ability to convince you that, if you work it over in your mind enough, you just might. Like Lewis’s ghost, Personal Shopper’s meaning is just out of reach—and yet tantalizingly close.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Nora von Waldstätten
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.