A mystery solved. In director Olivier Assayas’ 2014 drama Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart played Valentine, the personal assistant; a go-getter, errand-runner to a continental celebrity diva. During the third act, without explanation, the young woman mysteriously vanished. She never reappeared, and no one talked about it. It wasn’t a case of her character not appearing in the next scene; she literally vanished in the blink of Juliette Binoche’s eye on the side of a mountain.
In the French director’s new film, a haunting psychological drama, Personal Shopper, Stewart returns, and if you look for meaning in what seems an intentionally ambiguous story, you could always interpret it as being the same character. Here she’s called Maureen, and again, Maureen is an assistant to a continental celebrity diva, but there’s a difference. Her job is that of a personal shopper; she flits from one up-scale Parisian store to another, buying clothes, selecting gowns, and picking shoes for a demanding, international pop star, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). That’s her day job.
At night she’s a spiritualist, a ghost hunter, and she’s looking for one spirit in particular; her deceased brother, Lewis. Both Lewis and Maureen had heart issues, and both agreed that whoever died first would return to contact the other. With effective, horror movie creepiness, when Maureen slowly walks through the rooms of a deserted mansion, she thinks she hears something. “Lewis?” she whispers. A faucet in the bathroom is running. “I’m gonna need more from you,” she insists after turning it off.
Events become stranger for Maureen when on a later visit, a malicious spirit actually appears, floating around above Maureen’s head, going in for the attack. It’s a harrowing experience for the young woman, which leaves her understandably shaken and fleeing from the house.
But the eeriness continues; not so much in the form of floating spirits, but via text messages. On a trip on a Euro Express from Paris to London, Maureen begins receiving messages on her cell from someone unknown. Lewis, perhaps? The first message reads simply, “I know you.” The second says, “And you know me.” Before Maureen has considered a reply, the third message states, “You’re off to London.” The messages continue to tease, pretending that the sender is there, on the train with her, observing from maybe a few seats away, but then her cell reads, “Just kidding.”
Among the film’s occasional jolts and a few surprises, the biggest surprise of all is just how good Kristen Stewart has become. With her pale features and sunken, dark eyes, Stewart’s Maureen has the look of a young woman perpetually haunted, and it’s the best effect of the film. Her jittery manner as her nerves continue to fray play authentic. Later, when she enters an apartment and discovers a dead body, the moment is such a shock to her already shattered system she can’t think straight. Instead of calling the police, Maureen runs from the building, jumps on her motorcycle and flees the scene. It’s only later when she calls the authorities. Trying to defend her belated call and justify her illogical actions to a french detective may well be one of her best scenes ever.
But to explain what the film is really about is more difficult, though there’s always the interesting parallel to be made between Maureen’s two occupations; the personal shopper who works with the material during the day, the spiritual at night. When it was shown at the 69th Cannes International Film Festival, Personal Shopper was booed by the majority of critics, yet when it played later to an audience, it was greeted with a four minute standing ovation, such is the diversive reaction the film elicits. Promoting the film as a ghost thriller will never work for mainstream audiences looking for thrills and spills in their haunting, and as a psychological drama, looking for meaning when the film appears to have no intention of presenting one is just as frustrating; by the fade, nothing connects. But, oddly, it remains a story that intrigues, even if you sense it might be heading nowhere, and most of that is down to Stewart.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)