Film Review: “Personal Shopper” — An Enigma Wrapped in a Seance

I relish a movie that — in its weirdly ambiguous way — poses questions about how technology and fashion are skewing our relationships and obliterating traditional notions of identity.

Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas. Now screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theater, and Loews Boston Common.

in a scene from "Personal Shopper."

Kristen Stewart in a scene from “Personal Shopper.”

By Tim Jackson

In Olivier Assayas’ new film, Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart is the titular Maureen Cartwright, an enigmatic woman who can communicate with ghosts and whose real life job is to keep her jet-setting employer in high fashions. She is a character caught between worlds — the physical and the ethereal. On screen for all of the film’s 110 minutes, the actress’s cool, detached, yet subliminally anxious persona neatly suits this story, which explores how presence and absence influence our lives in different ways. It is also about how we communicate with one another, form identities, and deal with relationships of various kinds: face to face, mediated through technology or, taking a leap into another genre, contacting the spiritual and the supernatural. The actress’s previous film with Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria, examines a similar idea: how the identities we construct (i.e. dream up) can transform physical reality.

In Sils Maria, Stewart played the ambitious American assistant to an insecure and aging French actress (Juliet Binoche). Here she is the personal shopping assistant to a globe-trotting fashion icon who we never see, except in news clips. Maureen puts together the outfits and picks out pricey accessories for a woman she barely knows. She ‘skypes’ regularly with a boyfriend we never encounter in person. She is stalked by someone who uses text messages to threaten and challenge her. Other than a good friend, who offers her a place when circumstances become threatening, the viewer never sees Maureen interact with the people who have any impact on her life. Similarly, we rarely know what she is thinking or feeling. Her subdued demeanor is justified, in part, by her having to deal with a congenital heart condition that requires her to avoid becoming too emotional. Her twin brother, we learn, recently died of this same condition. Maureen, because she is spiritualist, made a pact with him that — if one of them died — the other would attempt to contact the survivor from the beyond. It didn’t work for Houdini, who promised to speak to his mother from beyond the grave. But she may pull it off: the narrative is propelled by strange visions the viewer glimpses in sudden flashes.

Personal Shopper is a film filled with partial information and Stewart’s underplayed performance is a major part of the puzzle. In one scene, Maureen is challenged by her online stalker to try on pieces of her employer’s wardrobe. She takes the bait — and is rewarded by a blatantly erotic thrill. Is she sexually frustrated? Is she resentful or envious of her employer? Why does she accept anonymous text messages? Is she trying on an identity through fantasy? What is emotional significance of her long distance relationship, about which she seems blasé? Are the visions that frighten her real or is she hallucinating? Occasionally, the audience sees ghostly events that Maureen does not notice. Is the viewer seeing illusions that Maureen doesn’t see? Or are we to believe that this spookiness is real? The narrative’s attraction hinges on its flirtation with unknowing.

What is Assayas up to? He may be commenting on today’s lack of personal engagement, riffing on the uncertainty of mediated communication, the elusiveness of ‘objective’ facts. He has found the right actress to embody relativity. Like Isabel Huppert or Charlotte Rampling, Stewart is a sexy and compelling actress who is a pleasure to watch and decipher. She and the director are well matched: neither want to be tightly defined. The leisurely pace of the film, the muted performances, and the odd mix of genre and plot elements are not for every taste. But I relish a movie that — in its weirdly ambiguous way — poses questions about how technology and fashion are skewing our relationships and obliterating traditional notions of identity.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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