Review: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper marks yet another virtuoso performance from Kristen Stewart, re-teaming with Olivier Assayas. Mysteriously haunting.

Fast cementing her status as one of our finest young actors, Kristen Stewart spoils her avid fans with a luminous turn in the lead role of Personal Shopper, which sees her once again working with Clouds of Sils Maria writer/director Olivier Assayas and gifted cinematographer Yorick Le Saux.

Ambiguity swirls around this intriguing genre-bender, part-ghost story, part-thriller, all emotional wringer. Stewart lays Maureen, the personal shopper of the title who loathes both her rarely glimpsed celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) and the menial clothes-fetching jobs she performs for her.

It turns out the gig scooting around Paris from Chanel to Givenchy is just financial cover while she’s in town to scope out the abandoned mansion where her twin brother Lewis died. Desperately mourning his unexpected departure, she shared a powerful connection to the spirit world with him in life and hopes she can lift the veil between worlds on her own, in order to receive one final message that he’s at peace in death.

Further complicating matters, Maureen shares the heart defect that claimed Lewis far too young, though Assayas doesn’t make quite as much of this threat as he probably could.

Instead, he’s content toying with our heart palpitation rates in a haunting opening scene as Maureen stalks the house’s creepy corridors looking for some sign of afterlife. While she hears nothing but bumps in the night and encounters strangely running taps, we’re spooked by a glimpse of a swirling, spectral entity.

Obsessively Googling videos relaying the spiritual fascinations of artist Hilma af Klimt and novelist Victor Hugo, the plot further thickens when Maureen begins to receive stalker-like SMS from an unknown number. Automatically assuming they come from Lewis himself, the smartphone missives tempt her into a personal invasion of Kyra’s shimmering wardrobe.

Is someone living tormenting and manipulating Maureen in the throes of maddening grief? Her belief that she’s being influenced from beyond the grave  should seem far-fetched, but it’s not such a stretch given that we, the audience, are privy to the real supernatural menace at play here.

The joy of Personal Shopper is that what’s ‘likely’ is of little use here. With echoes of the strained central relationship of Sils Maria and its meta-textual toying, Stewart is once again given free rein to flex her considerable acting muscles in a complex role riddled with grief, personal doubt and frayed nerves.

Where it differs considerably from the previous movie is that Stewart must convey all this through sparse dialogue, a large chunk of which is delivered via those ambiguous iPhone messages.

Personal Shopper is a hall of mirrors reflecting pained expression and a general air of menace. To say too much more would be to spoil a wilfully odd movie that has unsurprisingly divided the critics and even elicited the dreaded boos at Cannes. What I will say is that I found it an intensely moving and unnerving experience that will rattle like a restless spirit around the halls of my mind for many years to come.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★

A version of this review first ran during MIFF 2016.