Unmoored: That’s probably the best description of Kristen Stewart’s character, Maureen, in Personal Shopper. An American in Paris, she’s always in transit, zipping around the city of light on her scooter and going from one high-end boutique to another, all in the service of the celebrity she works for as the titular “personal shopper.” Or, she’s plying her vocation as a spiritualist-medium, roaming from room to room in empty houses, searching for connections to the spirit world.
What unmoored her? The recent death of her brother. He, too, was a medium; he promised to contact her if he died first. (As the film begins, he has not.) They also shared the congenital heart defect that killed him and hangs over her.
If this sounds loopy and a bit aimless, it doesn’t play that way at all. Writer-director Olivier Assayas is a wonderfully concise filmmaker, and no one shot or scene lasts a frame longer than it should. (His frequent use of fade-outs is very effective, not the least because so few directors use them anymore.) Assayas combines the seemingly disparate elements of the story in ways that are unnerving and malevolent; Maureen waiting in vain for a message that doesn’t come is as alienating as picking up Jimmy Choos for someone she rarely sees and barely knows. And when she does make contact with a “spirit,” or has a fleeting meeting with her exasperating employer, there’s nothing satisfying in either encounter. There’s always tension.
This tension is ramped up when Maureen starts receiving anonymous text messages that alternately challenge and threaten her. At first she hopes that these are messages from “beyond”–she takes a detour into investigating the connections between technology and spirituality that is both annoying and revealing–but then the messages take on an erotic tone that moves the film and its protagonist in another direction.
It’s terrifying to watch Maureen embrace chaos; we’ve become invested in her fate, and watching events spin out of control is genuinely nerve-wracking.
A delightful aspect of Assayas’ films is that the final scenes often change the way you think about the entire film. Irma Vep’s finale helps explain the chaos that preceded it; Summer Hours ends with a museum visit which shows characters we’ve spent the film with (and come to care about) alienated from the artifacts of their own lives.
Personal Shopper’s final sequence packs a wallop. It makes you rethink everything you thought you understood about everything that happened before. It’s revelation time for Maureen the medium, and Stewart plays it perfectly.
Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, starring Kristen Stewart, IFC Films