Olivier Assayas’s latest film once again stars the criminally underrated Kristen Stewart. But while “Clouds of Sils Maria” fit neatly into the drama category, “Personal Shopper” is far more ambiguous. Perhaps the easiest way to sum it up is a gothic drama about a young woman who feels trapped between the living and the dead.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is employed as a personal shopper for a pretensions fashion model in Paris. The model, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) is cold, aloof, and barely acknowledges Maureen’s existence. The closest thing to job-satisfaction Maureen can obtain is when she notices Kyra wearing her selections on the news or in a magazine pictorial. Her boyfriend (Ty Olwin) has moved away from the city and is patiently waiting for her to join him, but Maureen believes she must remain in Paris until she knows it’s the right time to leave.
Specifically what she is waiting for is a mystery, even to her, but it involves her twin brother who recently passed away from sudden heart failure. Her brother was a medium, and although Maureen was sensitive to the spiritual realm, she was never a true believer as he was. This uncertainty has her trapped. If she was ever to believe in the afterlife, Maureen is convinced it would be the spirit of her brother who would finally reach out and make contact. But if it doesn’t exist, or he is unable to make contact, how much more time of her life should she throw away waiting for something that may never happen?
This feeling of entrapment between a life that could be and the life that is permeates Assayas’s story and personifies so much more than the story we are watching unfold. People are often trapped between lives, worlds, or relationships, either frightened or lacking the strength to make a decision. It’s not easy to change who you are, or re-invent your existence. (Something that Maureen is explicitly tempted by later in the film.) The movie also takes an interesting approach to the supernatural elements, weaving them casually into the more or less grounded story. Often, a ghost story is just that: A story about ghosts that relies on increasingly frightening imagery until it reaches a climax and/or collapses under it’s own weight. “Personal Shopper” instead is a story about a person, who’s frighteningly mundane life is occasionally punctuated by supernatural elements.
The story works largely in part to Kristen Stewart understated, yet perfectly realistic performance. She is incredibly easy to identify with in this role, and the audience is drawn into her plight. We feel empathy for her and question if we would make the same decisions she makes. Which chances would we take if we thought it could lead to a more fulfilling life? Or at the very least occasional moments of happiness? Humans are notoriously bad at making the right decisions in our lives, especially when tempted by our demons, be they internal, external, real or otherwise.