Maureen, played by Kristen Stewart, is a young American expat living in Paris, whose fraternal twin brother has died recently from a genetic heart condition she also suffers from. The brother also happened to be a medium, as is she. While waiting for her brother’s spirit to visit her, she works as a personal shopper for high-profile celebrity Kyra. Written and directed by French film director, Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper is a film about grief – about hanging on or letting go. It is the second collaboration between he and Kristen Stewart with the film winning him ‘Best Director’ at the Cannes Film Festival.
In a haze of cigarettes and designer clothes, Paris provides the perfect backdrop and contrast between glamour and art house grunge. The film’s been described as genre-blurring: part ghost story, part psychological thriller, and a drama with a coming-of-age bent.
Supported by a tiny cast, including Lars Eidinger as Ingo and Nora von Waldstatten as Kyra, Kristen Stewart’s performance is central and stellar. The detailed visuals and styling are the film’s real strength and the contrasts are constant – take Maureen’s oversized, loudly patterned knitted jumpers and greasy hair with the Cartier jewellery she carries around for Kyra. Beyond the visual, the characters’ seriousness about spirituality and the occult are mingled in with their involvement in insipid superficiality. Kyra’s excessive wealth and celebrity are treated with both disdain and awe.
As she navigates these opposing worlds, Maureen is nearly always in motion. She has a nervous energy – evident in her nail biting and her quick over-the-shoulder looks – and an uneasiness in the agitated way she pushes her hair back, tugs her jumpers on and off, or sucks down cigarette smoke. But she’s tough and convincing. She’s a detailed actress, and her ownership of the role comes with her ability to inhabit every tiny movement.
As Maureen searches and waits for a sign from her brother, the film hones in on empty spaces and the unseen things that fill them. This is manifested in scenes inside the large, abandoned Parisian house, which Maureen returns to in the hopes of summoning her brother. She finds what dwells in this space, and it’s not what she’s looking for.
But what makes this film an affecting thriller is that its eeriness doesn’t rely on the ghost storylines. The fear and emotions of the characters foster suspense just as well as the ghost plot lines do.
In one scene, Maureen travels from Paris to London to pick up clothes for Kyra. The train whizzes across countryside and the scene is fast paced as Maureen flits between seat and kiosk, seat and bathroom. The scene hangs on the edge of reality and the occult, between staying and running – as does the film as a whole.
The concept of the forbidden is also explored, and it’s relation to fear. Maureen is forbidden to try on Kyra’s clothes. When she does, alone in Kyra’s apartment one night sipping from a tumbler of Vodka, the fear of being caught and exposed permeates the entire scene. The suspense in this scene is on par to any of the ghost scenes.
Throughout the film, fear is closely tied to intimacy. There’s an intimacy between Maureen and Kyra, through her job that gives her so much access to Kyra’s life, as there is between Maureen and her brother. It’s another contrast that we see more of her relationship with Kyra than we know of her and her brother. We never know the intent of her brother’s ghost.
The overall ambiguity of when and whether Maureen is actually connected to another world – and who communicates to her from the other side – is what makes this a great ghost story, and stops it falling into the tired formula of ghost horror films. Throughout the film it has us wondering, is this real? Is it spiritual? Or is this part in Maureen’s head?
The film leads us to think the answer will come with the final scene – it doesn’t. Maybe the answer is we are not supposed to move on, or attain closure or clarity. Grief is a long-term relationship.
Personal Shopper is in cinemas from April 13.