When people tell you Personal Shopper is a “ghost story,” you might nod and interpret their commentary as meaning it’s not literally about ghosts, and instead about a character—Kristen Stewart, probably—who is haunted by the memory of a dead loved one. But you’d only be half right. Personal Shopper is a ghost story in the truest sense, and features nebulous, metaphysical apparitions you can see and hear. Yes, Stewart’s character, a medium/personal shopper for a famous young woman in Paris, is haunted by the memory of her dead twin brother in the psychological sense, but he—and others—are also there, coexisting among the living. It’s a ghost story and a “ghost” story—haunting and hypnotic, gorgeous and eerie.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas, who also cast Stewart in 2015's similarly peculiar and evocative Clouds of Sils Maria, clears this up in the first act, when Maureen (Stewart) visits the crumbling country home her twin brother purchased before his death. After hearing the kinds of noises the more rational parts of your brain would write off as “the house settling” or “old pipes,” Maureen discovers a ghost—it really is a ghost, but not of her brother—dangling mid-air like like a malevolent chandelier before vomiting a little ectoplasm all over her.
It’s the first, and most startling, of the movie’s ghostly moments. Revealing whether or not Stewart is dealing with real entities so early on allows Assayas to ask more difficult—and increasingly unanswerable—questions. For instance, why do ghosts make their presence known in the first place? and, most importantly, who the hell has been sending Maureen all these creepy text messages? Is is a sadistic trickster or the ghost of her dead brother? Maureen isn’t sure, and neither are we. It has, after all, been a year or so since his death, and the two made an agreement long ago that whomever died first would contact with the other. So here’s Maureen, working a job she doesn’t even like (but which she is quite good at), in order to be closer to the spirit of her dead brother. She’s hunting for a sign, and the identity of this mysterious new contact in her phone. She’s also hunting for clothes.
Maureen’s work as a personal shopper takes her back and forth between London and France, where she slinks through fashion houses looking for chic items to buy her boss, and trying a few pieces on in the process. (How convenient that they’re the same size.) Back at the rich woman’s cold and empty home, she delivers the couture gowns and $10,000 bags while drifting through the space much like a ghost would—disturbing as little as possible, but doing just enough to make her presence known. Stewart is just phenomenally good at this type of role—you know, the woman masking a private crisis with a sort of alluring vapidity. And Assayas’s astute direction renders every shot claustrophobic, as though both his actors and camera are aware of a lingering entity the audience can’t see.
By Personal Shopper’s strange and abrupt finale, Assayas has untangled his many ghost stories to differing degrees, which I’m sure will frustrate plenty of viewers. In some, he provides closure—a path free of knots. In others, an unsettling bumpiness filled with depictions of grief and questions about this version of the afterlife I haven’t stopped pondering in the months since seeing it. This is a strange encounter, but one definitely worth having.