Walking into Olivier Assayas’s latest film, Personal Shopper, feels like opening an expansive, finely crafted jewelry box. It’s brilliantly faceted, meandering, and unwaveringly beautiful. At its heart Personal Shopper is a ghost story, an understated haunting tangled into the day-to-day life of a woman who lives on the fringes of both wealth and celebrity.
Kristen Stewart stars—and independently carries the vast majority of the movie’s screen time—as the titular personal shopper, Maureen. Maureen skates through the most lavish new styles from big labels to dress Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), her petulant high-profile client who can’t do anything as ordinary as go to a store. The job is only really a money-making necessity, though, riding sidecar to Maureen’s real passion: she is a medium, and with the death of her twin brother in Paris, she’s staying in the city to keep a promise to him. Whichever twin died first promised to send messages back, across the veil, to confirm her twin’s conviction that the spirit world really does exist in the demi-monde beyond our own.
There’s a strange, realist steadiness to this ghost story, a necessary patience as we and Maureen turn corners in masterful long takes. Maureen is generally, deeply alone, and her world certainly does not feel fantastical, but rather unnervingly rooted in repetitive, practical trappings. Despite the glamor and the ghostliness, running in parallel to each other, there isn’t the sense in Personal Shopper that we’ve ascended past the level of realism, the steady art-house beat that serves to keep the audience rooted in the slow, tangible monotony of hour-to-hour living. The structure and atmosphere of the movie feel so certain, for all the mysteries boiling below its surface. And that disjoint ripped many viewers and critics out of the film’s spell.
But while Maureen chain-smokes and sketches and waits for the veil to open, conviction is one thing that she isn’t granted. Spending long nights in her twin’s empty house, waiting for the sense of her brother to reach out to her, Maureen encounters real mystery. Assayas renders her anxious listening for her brother’s presence with crystalline, anxious tension, and as the movie strikes each deliberate beat, Stewart carries the unflappable performance with a focus that keeps a patient audience thoroughly entranced.
The treatment of space in the movie is part of its haunting: with long trailing shots from room to room, the movie gives a clear and heavy sense of inhabiting the haunted house, the client’s glamorous apartment, and Maureen’s own small rag-tag garret with stripy towels used in place of carpets. There’s something very Ingmar Bergman in Personal Shopper’s savoring of space, as the camera pans and swivels, following Stewart from room to room, through doors and around corners. Like Bergman’s The Silence, where the camera floats through a mystifying and nameless hotel, each new space in Personal Shopper feels pregnant, burgeoning with either spectral presences or with additional, disquieting mysteries.
Visually Personal Shopper indulges in the glamor of its lead actress and her wardrobe, but it is not quite indulgent enough to satisfy the Neon Diamond-esque appeal with which this film was marketed: dresses, beauty, disturbing power centered on a famous face with an R-rating level of uninhibitedness. Personal Shopper doesn’t seek the same level of transgression and spectacle as Neon Diamond. It walks more quietly and spreads itself more widely, more like a breeze and less like a needle.
What Personal Shopper does, certainly, is pursue its subject in a way so gradual, so off-kilter, that the “Kristen Stewart hunts ghosts in Paris” movie becomes a gentle and intent exploration of Maureen’s sense of wonder. Ghost stories set in realist worlds are not exactly novel—I’m thinking of Bergman again here, in his 1958 The Magician, where the heart of the magic isn’t the reveal, like a magic trick on stage. Rather the heart of it is the possibility of the trick, the urge to believe our eyes when we catch something unbelievable on screen—even when we expect the trick to be explained to us in the end. A realist setting implies that, when all is said and done, even the most unbelievable moments are given the chance—if not the guarantee—to be explained away.
Personal Shopper plays with that expectation and lets us linger just short of certainty on either front. There are small touches—the speed with which Maureen’s texts are answered, for instance, from an unknown number—that Maureen, isolated in her whirlwind life as an outlier, simply doesn’t bring up to anyone. There is no one to talk to, or there is a potential, easy explanation. The real wonder of Maureen’s haunted life comes not from the most spectacular aspects of the haunting, but from its nuances—nuances that may only be a part of the mundane part of her life, but which she alone—and the audience through her eyes—has to understand without the promise of an answer.
That’s why I lean toward lending Personal Shopper the benefit of the doubt—because frankly it doesn’t tie up its loose ends and leaves the viewer with a feeling of something unresolved on many fronts. On one hand, that unresolved feeling as you walk out of the theater might ring of a technical failure, a beat the movie missed in its arc. But in the context of Assayas’s strange, continual questioning from scene to scene of the movie, the sense of the movie’s conclusion doesn’t seem like a stumble to me, but rather one more careful step in a story built of slow, meticulous, and unanswered questions.