Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
Director: Olivier Assayas
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Olivier Assayas' latest feature, Personal Shopper, could just as easily have been titled "Personal Identity", as its primary focus rests on the ways in which self-image can be fragmented. The central protagonist played by Kristen Stewart may be an assistant to a vain celebrity, but she identifies herself primarily as someone who can communicate with spirits. Therefore, part of the surprise of the film is just how much Assayas leans into the psychological thriller/horror trappings, even as the story ultimately emerges as a powerful depiction of how geographical spaces and accessories can define one's sense of identity.
As a filmmaker, Assayas has always been interested in characters existing in a kind of fugue state. His last picture, Clouds of Sils Maria, was about two people trapped in a mountain retreat forced to work out their inner insecurities and fears through the art of acting. Here, he layers aspects of the afterlife, supernatural forces, and the psychological trauma of grief into the narrative, but his true aim is to observe one woman's personal and professional identities merging into the vision of someone trying to connect with the dead rather than the living. Of course, this doesn't mean Assayas skimps on the genre elements. In fact, we not only see literal manifestations of ghosts here, but also an extended sequence aboard a train involving otherworldly text messages which plays like a sly update of the horror phone call trope from Scream.
Stewart dominates every scene as Maureen, a young woman constantly dealing with the petty demands of her boss Kyra (Sigrid Bouaziz), an egotistical model whose presence is just as ghostly as Maureen's recently deceased brother, who may be stalking her from beyond the grave. Interestingly, there's another parallel here with Clouds of Sils Maria in that Maureen feels like a continuation of Stewart's character from the previous feature, minus the bond forming between her and Juliet Binoche's aging actress. If Stewart's floundering assistant in that film came across as a warm if stoic presence, here she portrays someone utterly alone; disconnected, aimless, and going through the motions of her daily work while desperately trying to make sense of her brother's sudden passing. It's a richly nuanced performance; both observational and heartfelt, inward and expressive. The way she navigates the prolonged text messaging sequence, for example, is something of a miracle, since there's nothing inherently compelling about the act of staring into a glowing screen and tapping away. Somehow, however, Stewart makes it riveting.
The theme of fragmented identity is further deepened once Maureen is given the opportunity to try on some of Kyra's designer clothing; a forbidden act which tempts her from a distance. During these scenes, Stewart subtly shifts her mood from withdrawn to self-assured, basically becoming an entirely different person simply by walking around in someone else's garments. The fact that Assayas continues to toy with genre conventions throughout only enhances this idea of self-image in a state of flux based on geography and accessorization, leading to moments of legitimate suspense. Unlike most thrillers or horror films, though, Personal Shopper eschews "gotcha" reveals or twists explaining the unexplainable. Instead, it has the setup of a horror movie (along with some of the imagery), but none of the payoff.
The emotional complexity and intellectual power of Personal Shopper doesn't rest on whether spirits exist or not, but rather, on how human beings choose to deal with the living and remember the dead. Using striking compositions, deft camera movements suggesting the movement of things unseen, and a thoroughly distinctive central performance, Assayas has crafted a masterful meditation on identity which leaves us wondering just what kind of person we will choose to be, no matter where we are.