Gore-fests littered with jump scares are all too common these days, so a refreshing ghost story is always a relief. To some extent, this is what we get with Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is lonely, troubled and living in Paris, awaiting a sign from her deceased brother, who she believes will contact her from beyond the grave. She grudgingly makes money as a personal shopper, buying clothes and running errands for a woman she is equally disdainful towards. Approaching each day with a cold resentment, her desperation to escape and become somebody else escalates – with sinister consequences of course.
Immediately impressive is Stewart’s performance. She has been treated with hostility ever since her dull performance in the tiresome Twilight franchise. Here, she really proves her worth as an actress in a complex and career-best performance, conveying torturous emotions of envy and dissatisfaction with expert conviction.
Assayas certainly succeeds in contrasting the superficial world of fashion and celebrity with the supernatural. The scenes in which Maureen tries to achieve contact with the spirit world are genuinely chilling, but never interrupt the development of her character as a depressed young woman, caught in a transitory stage of alienation and grief.
She spends her days purchasing glamorous clothing that she couldn’t possibly afford to wear herself, no matter how much she’d like to. It is not necessarily the clothes that attract her, but the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone else, someone happier, someone likeable. Maureen’s sense of low self-worth is reflected in the way she dresses, wearing unflattering and baggy clothing because it is what she feels she deserves, yet aching to unleash her seductive side that may have been abandoned following the death of her sibling.
Unfortunately, as the film progresses there is an increasing reliance on the use of mobile phones, as an entire relationship with a mysterious stranger is communicated to the audience through a series of vague and transparent text messages. The technique feels strained because it is used a little too frequently and really detracts from the ambiguity of the horror elements that are otherwise handled excellently, as the audience begins to question how subjective the paranormal incidents being presented really are.
Personal Shopper feels like it could be two films in its own right. There is paranormal drama, and then there is emotionally rich character study, which sadly feels forced when feelings and guilt are communicated through text on screen. Stewart capably expresses longing and insecurity through her performance without this. Even if the texts may represent a sort of internal monologue (as a result of isolation from those she feels she can open up to) a more subtle approach would have better fit the tone of the film. Yet, Personal Shopper is compelling, odd, and elevated by what must be one of the best performances of the year so far.