“I just need to see it to the end, that’s all”
At the heart of Olivier Assayas‘ Personal Shopper is an idea of fear. This isn’t surprising considering it’s a genre ghost story, but its target is. Lead character Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) isn’t afraid of ghosts, spirits, or the supernatural because she’s a medium like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. And even though she doesn’t quite believe their abilities prove what he did—the afterlife’s existence—she trusts and respects him enough to make good on the oath they struck to give the other a sign from wherever death took them. So Maureen seeks our usual source of horror and anxiety. She hopes to hear from him and know he’s at peace. It’s therefore life—not death—that frightens her. The life she must live without him.
We see it in her interactions, an awkwardness ever-present. She has remained in Paris to give Lewis a chance at communication, preventing the sale of his house to his close friends (Audrey Bonnet and Pascal Rambert) in order to do so. She visits the estate during evenings to listen and feel his presence. Maureen craves to hold onto the past as Lewis’ girlfriend Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) seeks to let it be so that she can move towards a new future. The only time Maureen looks confident is therefore when she’s yelling into the shadows and demanding to know what lurks there. She avoids eye contact with humans, stammering through conversations she hopes to escape. But the potential of a specter being Lewis provides the strength to stand tall.
One assumes her current job as personal shopper for model Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) is therefore a perfect fit. Rather than deal with herself in a world she’s fearful to traverse alone (her boyfriend Gary, played by Ty Olwin, works in the Middle East), she can live for someone else. The truth, however, is that she hates it—or at least the idea of it. Kyra pays well and their conversations are mostly via notes and phone calls, so the job allows a sense of false freedom. I say false because despite Maureen being able to visit her brother’s home when not shopping for clothes and jewelry, the ability to do so traps her. Without money and time, she would have left. It’s been ninety days of silence.
Whether fate or coincidence, today finally bears fruit. Is it Lewis? Is it benevolent? She feels it, we see it (a wisp of light), and it leaves behind a scratched cross on the wall. Maybe this is his sign or perhaps it’s a harbinger for nightmare yet to come. Whatever it is, it keeps Maureen on edge to allow curiosity to overpower skepticism. Because while she would probably have blocked a strange “unknown” text message sender the week before, his/her mysterious questions and knowledge of her life give her pause now. What if Lewis was right and the spirits they feel are the dead? What if it’s he who’s working to shake her awake? After all, wanting to be someone else could simply mean another version of you.
This is the bulk of the film: an adventure of sorts full of suspense and secrecy. Maureen goes about her job after a pretty intense experience in Lewis’ house and vacillates between accepting the challenge set forth by her text stalker and ignoring it. She’s asked to do what she’s forbidden to do—in this case wear her boss’ clothes. It’s something she’s always wanted to do and this exact moment is the perfect opportunity for a go. Maureen may fear the danger of being caught, but she also revels in the freshness of doing something out of her norm. She finds freedom in the reprieve, not so much to become Kyra as much as to stop being herself. This new skin provides a comfort as yet unfamiliar.
The process allows us to understand Personal Shopper isn’t about Lewis’ death or Maureen’s mourning. It’s instead her metamorphosis beyond an identity that no longer fits. She and her twin were close—they have the same congenital heart condition, a reason their pact was made in the first place. His absence has left a void as though she’s now standing on one leg. We assume he was the fun one full of life to contrast her quiet, introspective demeanor. Together they were probably like two halves of an infectious whole and now she’s incomplete. And as long as she stays to wait for something that may not happen, she will remain that way forever. The question is less about whether Lewis is at peace than it is Maureen.
But while this is the main drive of Assayas’ film, he doesn’t completely ignore the salacious drama that genre work generally possesses. Maureen’s journey towards self-discovery—needs, desires, and purpose—may be calculating and drawn out to ratchet up tension, but it exists on the back of a plotline seemingly arriving from nowhere despite its honest execution. The filmmakers do a great job blurring the line between reality and the spirit world with some nice visual flourishes expanding upon their coexistence and this climax does ultimately help push Maureen away from the past’s clutches, but it feels forced in its tonal disparity. Suddenly this muted look at identity shifts into a loud and violent aside that didn’t quite metaphorically signify her rebirth enough to forgive its staccato intrusion.
It’s a brief moment—its build-up paralleling her awakening—that wakes us up too. But I’m not sure it didn’t go too far as I was taken out of the story so that everything following it felt slightly artificial. This is especially true because the action forces audience members to either accept the power of ghosts or officially chalk things up to Maureen’s heightened state of emotions turning things into what they aren’t. I personally lean towards the latter, the subsequent events shrouded in mystery losing effect despite providing a visually stunning experience. I waited for an explanation and eventually created my own. Non-skeptics will conversely enjoy the ambiguity more. However, the simple fact Assayas has made it so his film reads multiple ways conclusively cements its success.
[1-3] Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in Olivier Assayas’s PERSONAL SHOPPER. Photo by Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.