There’s an Marshall McLuhan quote that comes up in conversations regarding technology, communication, and form: “The medium is the message.” It also perfectly encapsulate’s the latest project from filmmaker Olivier Assayas and actress Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper, an intimate and expertly-crafted meditation on the connections and boundaries between the material and the spiritual realms. Having previously collaborated on the meta-art film Clouds of Sils Maria, I found this Assayas-Stewart project to be even more affecting and intriguing. “Haunting” is an over-used adjective in describing films, to the point where it often doesn’t mean anything apart from “memorable.” But Personal Shopper is truly haunting, a ghost story which lingers in one’s conscious, its ideas and questions wandering in the mind like a spirit trapped in an enormous empty house.
Personal Shopper opens in such a house, full of shadows and memories. Stewart’s Maureen is a medium, a person making contact with the spirits of the dead, and we watch as she quietly wanders through this home in an attempt to discern if there’s still a presence within. Having recently lost her twin brother, Lewis, to a heart attack from a genetic condition–one she also shares–she is remaining in Paris awaiting a sign from him beyond the grave. It’s clear that Maureen is a bit skeptical of her abilities; she admits in a conversation that she’s not sure who or what she’s contacting in her seance moments, only that something is there. The film doesn’t remain ambiguous about this–something is there, and we are made privy to its presence. Yet there is still enough mystery to keep one guessing, and Assayas wisely doesn’t allow the story to devolve into haunted house schlock or typical thriller tropes. Still, Personal Shopper is often quite tense, and there are genuinely frightening moments. A few scenes involving a text message conversation are downright unnerving, even Hitchcockian in their ability to foster suspense. One scene involving a barrage of text messages retrieved after Maureen switches her phone from airplane mode is petrifying–I’ve never known the buzz of a received text to be so effectively scary in a film.
In contrast to the spiritualist vocation of a medium, Maureen pays the bills as a personal shopper for a celebrity, buying outfits and accessories. It’s a job which can only exist due to wanton consumerism and materialism. Stewart’s own wardrobe in the film feels intentionally out of place, an androgynous mixture of polos and frumpy sweaters which seem an attempt to conceal the beauty underneath. When Maureen finally tries on her employer’s clothes in an act of defiance, it’s a moment of revelation and intimacy, a scene which both critiques and celebrates the powerful influence of fashion on one’s identity. This critique/celebration relationship extends to Personal Shopper‘s exploration of art, technology, and communication. The ghosts and specters of the film are also seen (or not seen) through technological means–a pixelated Skype call, a series of text messages, a note left on a laptop. Maureen rarely sees her celebrity employer apart from Google image searches; she only talks to her boyfriend via Skype, and it’s never a clear connection (a realistic depiction of Skype calls if ever there was one). It’s like these forms of technology allow us to speak to ghosts, persons in another realm beyond us. The text conversations between Maureen and an unknown source further this enigma–is she speaking with the living or the dead? This spiritual/material interplay is expressed in Maureen’s dual positions–she’s a medium and a personal shopper, and these roles begin to blend together over the course of the film until one ultimately overpowers the other.
Like Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart’s performance is absolutely incredible. The acting never draws attention to itself; she simply is on screen, and she embodies a paradoxical blend of aloofness and intimacy which fosters incredible intrigue and connection. She’s often alone on the screen, carrying the weight of the images and story on her shoulders, and she does so with a quiet confidence that simply radiates from her posture and facial expressions. In the few moments where she is overcome with emotion and tears come to her eyes, I found myself unexpectedly weeping too, moved to compassion for this human being experiencing such grief and sadness. She, quite literally, bares it all in an act of trust of both filmmaker and audience, and this perceived vulnerability generates immense empathy. This is character study par excellence. In short, Personal Shopper is an elegiac, enigmatic masterpiece. If the medium is the message, Stewart is the ideal medium.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4714782/