Review: Personal Shopper (2016)

They shop among us

By Zeke Trautenberg

“Avoid intense physical efforts and extreme emotions.” That is the advice a doctor offers his patient, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) in Personal Shopper. This appeal for moderation and detachment is an ironic plea for sanity in a film populated with shimmering ghosts and Cartier diamonds.

Rather than avoid excess, Maureen dutifully embraces it, immersing herself in the boundary between the living and the dead. A self-described medium, Maureen aims to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother. The film opens with Maureen’s visit to the gloomy house outside Paris, which her brother was restoring before he died. A solitary gothic heroine, Maureen wanders through the moonlit halls calling out her brother’s name. When he appears to respond to her, leaving an etching of a cross on a wall, Maureen comprehends that her brother continues to haunt the world of the living.

Back in Paris, Maureen resumes her work as personal shopper for Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten), a celebrity of indeterminate pedigree travels the European dilettante circuit. Under leaden-European skies, Maureen crisscrosses Paris on her scooter acquiring clothes and jewelry for her boss. While stopping by Kyra’s apartment, Maureen meets Kyra’s boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger), who tells her he is certain he will soon be dumped by his famous girlfriend.

Shortly her encounter with Ingo, Maureen begins receiving ominous messages on her phone. The unknown sender probes her conscious and her inner fears. “Tell me something you find unsettling?,” the person asks. “Horror movies,” Maureen responds, because “a woman runs from a killer and hides.” These messages, which Assayas films through close-ups of Maureen’s phone, stoke Maureen’s fear of loss and stimulate her illicit fantasies. In the film’s most memorable sequence, she  acts out a fantasy she describes to the nameless interlocutor. Alone in her bosses apartment, she dons Kyra’s clothing. Maureen sheds her skin and, for a single night, inhabits someone else’s.

Maureen finds a kindred spirit in Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), a spiritualist abstract painter whose images captivate the protagonist. Like Klint, who did not show any of her works while alive, Maureen's search for her brother is a private endeavor. Assayas extends this connection to Klint by translating Maureen’s encounters with grief and loss into abstract, ethereal images.

In Irma Vep (1996) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) Assayas explores the messy process of artistic creation through similarly determined female protagonists. Personal Shopper presents an allegory of art and creation through Maureen’s work as a medium and personal shopper. However, the central theme of the film is seeing. For Maureen seeing is an act of imagination that entails anticipating, projecting, and interpreting. Whether she is interacting with the supernatural or buying a dress for her boss, Maureen is always imagining, or at least seeing through the hollow core of things.

Director: Olivier Assayas

Running Time: 105 minutes

Country: France

Photos: IFC/CG Cinema

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)