It has become a cliche to say that every haunted house movie or ghost movie is more haunted by its characters than its literal ghosts. As each character refuses to let go of their traumas, shames, and various wounds, their worlds (and houses) begin to shift and darken to accommodate these lingering spirits. We become our own ghosts when we surrender to the past. This is well-worn territory for these tales, creaking and moaning like the shuttered houses that are so often their settings.
When a storyteller is confronted with a cliche like this, one of three things can happen. A bad story will dive headfirst into it with no awareness, becoming a cliche itself. A good story will avoid it and tell an inventive story around it. A great story will take a cliche, strip-mine it for its undeniably honest core, and create something wholly unique and simultaneously, eerily familiar.
Olivier Assayas’ darkly intimate, lingering Personal Shopper is, by this metric, a truly great story.
As the title would suggest, the protagonist of Personal Shopper, Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart), is a personal shopper. The film uses this occupation to address the many ways in which loss, grief, and pain can turn one into a living ghost, forever haunting the tragedy of their survivor’s guilt. Kyra, Maureen’s supermodel client, hardly appears in the film, mostly communicating with Maureen through emails and texts full of instruction. When not out shopping for clothes for Kyra, Maureen spends her nights in her twin brother’s house, abandoned after his untimely death from a rare heart condition. Her boyfriend is far away in Oman on a working contract.
Maureen’s life is one of near-total disconnection. She spends most of the film completely alone, sending messages and manipulating environments for other people. To Kyra, she is a friendly ghost, filling her closets with lavish clothing. To her boyfriend, she is a voice, an almost-spectral image swathed in the blue backlight of a screen. To her friends, she is a passing presence, felt more than anything else. Kristen Stewart is the perfect choice for this character, and Olivier Assayas wrote the role specifically with Stewart in mind after their work together on his previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). With every second she spends in the frame, Stewart produces a deep, echoing melancholy, both alive with grief and dead to the world. Despite her brother’s death, and her many attempts to pierce the veil and contact him, the great irony of Assayas’ film is that Maureen feels more like the ghost.
This dark undertruth is supported by the unrelentingly bleak cinematography from Yorick Le Saux. The film looks like the best parts of classic Hitchcock travel book-thrillers like North by Northwest and Vertigo, turning their locations into city-sized gothic cathedrals of atmosphere. Personal Shopper’s Paris vacillates between an imposing, bullying claustrophobia and a complete shrinking away, filling the frame with Stewart, and nothing else.
When Maureen makes her attempts to contact her brother’s spirit, the film treats them with a cold, indifferent ambiguity. So much of the film could be explained by Maureen simply being driven mad from grief, and the story would suffer not at all. Personal Shopper, however, thrives on mystery. The strange thumps, creaks, and other instances parlor-trick paranormal evidence are given weight by Maureen’s belief in them, and then, her questioning that belief.
What I most appreciate about Personal Shopper is its subtle way of exploring the relationship between the modern world and isolation. When Maureen begins to receive cryptic texts from an unknown number, there is genuine uncertainty in both her and the viewer about the source of those texts. Some mischief-maker teasing her with an unlisted number? Her brother talking to her from beyond the grave? Or some dark third option beyond our imagining? The most terrifying thing about it is the knowledge that, in the world of Personal Shopper, it could truly be anything.
The film seems to be in close conversation with one of horror’s undisputed classics, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In both films, the tragic death of a loved one co-mingles with the deathless past of a city, in Personal Shopper it’s Paris, in Don’t Look Now it’s Venice, to create a feeling of inescapable dread and alienation. Roeg’s film creates an atmosphere of bleak hopelessness for the grieving parents played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.
Just as with Maureen, the couple sees evidence of their child’s ghost all over the city, personified by occasional visions of a little girl in a red raincoat, exactly like the one their daughter died in. Maureen, who claims to be a medium like her brother, feels his presence in his old house and refuses to leave Paris until she receives a sign that he is still with her, beyond the grave.
Two films work in concert to confront our anxieties and questions about death with honesty and maturity uncommon to modern cinema. In 1973, perhaps people were more open to a truly grown-up story with the mammoth questions at the heart of Don’t Look Now, but Personal Shopper is an elegant return to form with its patient, atmospheric storytelling and darkly intimate performance from its lead. While Don’t Look Now provides a definite answer to its questions with one of the most shocking endings in cinema history, Personal Shopper seems more interested in the questions themselves. Even when the film shows us a literal, malevolent spirit, we find ourselves, just like Maureen, wondering if we really saw what we saw.
Personal Shopper is a film that lives in memory as effectively as it does on the screen. We feel the lingering images of Maureen and her grief like phantom limbs, amputated whilst under the anesthesia of Assayas’ masterful directing and the finest performance of Stewart’s career. When we wake, the credits rolling behind our eyes, we look at the empty spaces in our lives, our phones, our closets, our houses, and wonder what ghosts lurk just beyond our perception.