The cinema, an art that has the capacity to integrate all other arts into it, is the medium of the mash-up. Films are highly permeable, where the unexpected happens, shows up or leaks in: situations and conditions, actors and locations all combine into something frozen in images animated into an untangleable hybrid. French director Olivier Assayas is no stranger to unusual combinations, but his new film Personal Shopper with remarkable abruptness tries to integrate two seemingly unrelated stories, making for an unexpected, beguiling, often silly, but always risky cinematic experience.
Both stories are of a lonely, independent young woman. The first is an anxious but self-assured medium who is haunted by the absence of afterworld signs of her dead twin brother. We meet her in her brother’s dark, emptied mansion, seeking some manifestation of his presence. She finds something there, a floating opaque wisp, thumps in the night, a cross scratched on the wall, and reports back to the house’s new owners that something is there, but she’s unsure if it’s her brother. The second young woman is a personal shopper of luxury clothing for a celebrity. She goes from boutique to boutique, picking out and later returning boutique couture clothing, secretly trying on the clothing of this other person (and this other world), before dropping them off at her boss’s empty flat—for she almost never sees her the famous woman.
This may sound like two different women, two different stories, but, in fact, Kristen Stewart, who collaborated so beautifully with the director in 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, plays both the medium and the shopper as one person. The result is that Assayas and Stewart appear to lay two distinct movies on top of one another, the first a film like the director’s moviemaking drama Irma Vep, of an isolated and somewhat distraught woman from another country living someone else’s life through an art—in that film that cinema, in this case, fashion. The second is a genre film, a ghost movie that uses shockingly direct special effects for classic horror movie tropes—ectoplasm, unexplained noises, floating objects—and more bizarre updates, including an elaborate sequence of someone, perhaps the spirit of the dead twin, teasing the young woman through a barrage of stalker-like text messages.
This frankly unresolved combination of forms and themes most resembles the director’s last attempt at a pure genre film, 2007’s Boarding Gate, which fleshed out a pointedly pulpy, B-movie story with byzantine character relationships and prickly psychology. Despite that film’s wonderful raw edges, it was too elaborated upon to be the kind of knife-sharp, nimble thriller it wanted to be. Or did it? This director’s intersections of intelligent art-house dramatics and cinephile impulses have almost always made for impure movies that try a lot of things, and frankly I tend to most admire the ones that take those risks, whether it’s Irma Vep, demonlover or Boarding Gate.
Both sides of Personal Shopper work on their own terms, though the terms of the ghost story involve Assayas’ decision to so concretely visualize the otherworldly that it actually overwhelms the film’s ghost story. A movie-inside-the-movie about Victor Hugo's paranormal experiences is tongue-in-cheek enough to suggest Personal Shopper knows that its bumps in the night are silly, but the young woman's sorrow and fear is serious and touching, so later ghostly encounters, including the SMS haunting, are a challenge to not find too ridiculous. (More elegant is a series of camera movements that follow nothing at all, and we see both an elevator and automatic doors open for this absence presence.) That the film is held together during such scenes is due almost entirely to Kristen Stewart. Her remarkable performance, at once forcefully headstrong and unexpectedly fragile, goes very far indeed to blend the shopper and the medium as one person, the two stories as inverted versions of each other: possessions and clothing, images and communication. With only a handful of supporting cast, Personal Shopper truly dedicates its weird, uncanny and unusual self to this very unsure, unsettled but resilient young woman. Shot on 35mm film in slate grays and muted bruise tones to cast a mourning darkness on her grief (...and boutique shopping), this film through and through attempts something quite brave, and I’m still trying to figure out just what that attempt is, precisely, before I can even begin to consider its success.