Personal Shopper (2016)

Personal Shopper first published by

“I’m waiting,” replies Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), an earnest young American, whenever anyone asks her what she is doing in Paris. One thing is for sure: she is not there just to be the Personal Shopper of the title, a job that she hates almost as much as she fears her employer, the demanding, moody globe-trotting supermodel Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) – but it certainly helps pay the bills while she continues waiting. Waiting for what? For answers? For meaning? For death? For Godot? Her enigmatic words mark her as a heroine of a decidedly existentialist bent, stranded and alienated in a foreign land, and caught in the suspension of her own uncertainty.

In fact, Maureen is waiting for a sign. Her twin brother Louis died in his isolated country house outside of Paris three months earlier from a heart deformity which, along with an ability to perceive ghostly spirits, he had shared with Maureen – but before his death, brother and sister had made a pact together that the one who went first would send back proof to the other of a world beyond. So now Maureen is waiting for a clear sign from Louis – except it is the nature of signs to be as ambiguous as they are arbitrary.

“Do you want to be someone else?”, someone asks Maureen from the ether – and her response is to start putting herself into Kyra’s shoes, clothes and bed in an attempt to test the limits of her own identity and to explore a life of alterity. On a confused quest for both truth and herself, Maureen navigates her way through a world of fashion that seems vain and superficial, and finds herself time and time again alone and desperate for contact in an empty space, be it Louis’ haunted house, Kyra’s luxurious pad, her own rented apartment, an anonymous hotel room, or finally a remote inn in the mountains of Oman. Maureen is not yet ready to move on from Louis’ death, which has intensified her own sense of mortality and her desire – mixed with a certain dread – to know if anything awaits beyond. She is an everywoman for our secular, digital age, haunted by doubt – and self-doubt.

Having already, in his previous The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), cast Kristen Stewart as a PA to an international star, here once more writer/director Olivier Assaya has Stewart as an adjunct to a VIP, as a way of figuring her marginalised status in the world around her. In her agnostic search for meaning, freedom and a greater authority, Maureen has turned to a vaguely defined spiritualism for answers. As she goes online to conjure the ghosts of artist Hilma af Klint and writer Victor Hugo, both mediums themselves, Maureen’s conversations with others are themselves mediated through the contemporary technologies of Skype, cellphone and text messaging – as well as through the more old-school forms of hand-written notes and table-turning knocks – all of which prove similarly equivocal and unsure. Even Maureen’s close encounters with actual spirits, realised through spectral emanations of light and sizzling electrical crackles on the soundtrack, do not so much resolve the film’s mystery as add to it.

A perfect update, and a deconstruction, of the ghost story, Personal Shopper is a tale of lost souls who include the living as well as the dead, all struggling to make contact with each other and to find something – anything – outside of their own isolated, solipsistic existences. It poses questions about faith and personal identity, about postmodern society and the individual’s place in it, without ever unequivocally answering any of them – and if its final sequence is ambiguous and paradoxical, that is also what makes it uncanny and haunting, as we, like Maureen, are left waiting for a deferred revelation that may never come.

Summary: Is there anybody out there? In asking this, and leaving us waiting for the answer, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper captures the uncertainty of the digital age.

© Anton Bitel