The least convincing element in Olivier Assayas’ quasi-ghost story Personal Shopper is naming the Kristen Stewart character Maureen. When another character referred to her for the first time, I dug my nails into the sofa arms in horror. Fuck no — “Maureen” is for observant, peevish Irish maids, aware of their masters’ transgressions. More acted upon than an actor, Maureen ambles through the Paris twilight unsure whether she feels less herself in the borrowed and very expensive shoes she’s picking up for her boss or when she watches the opaque ectoplasmic clouds flicker in the empty house in which her dead brother Louis once lived – and whose spirit she’s sure she sees in the form of those clouds.
Itself an uneasy gambol through the confines of ghost story and sociorealism, Personal Shopper at its best delineates the anxieties of educated people maneuvering through a fog of swank. “It’s extremely difficult to find a portal into the spirit world,” Maureen has to explain to the people who want Louis’ former house, an observation that Assayas might have applied to his own script writing method for this picture. Maureen’s hold on the physical world is tenuous: her imperious boss Kyra may terminate her at any moment; the enlarged ventricle condition that killed Louis may kill her too. So while Maureen suffers luxuriously, she watches lectures on Klimt, Victor Hugo, and spiritualism on YouTube and holds seances. In Kyra’s apartment, decorated in the anonymously spare manner of a high-end Marriott, she tries on the clothes she picked out but aren’t meant for her and masturbates.
During this scene, Assayas’ camera moves discreetly away, as if to protect her privacy. When his coolness and Stewart’s subtle depiction of quiet terror fuse, Personal Shopper works. The closest analogue to Assayas’ approach is The Green Room, François Truffaut’s 1976 adaptation of Henry James’ “The Altar of the Dead,” in which the director himself plays a man caught in the grip of the departed whom he has commemorated with such feeling. Whether Maureen actually hears bumps and slams in empty rooms isn’t clarified; wisely, he eschews haunted house ooga-boogas. What interests him is the portrait of a terrorized woman, a time-honored figure in cinema from The Innocents and Repulsion to The Others. James looms largely in two of those films, which makes sense: in Clouds of Sils Maria and his masterpiece Summer Houses, Assayas has explored his fascination with the wealthy, their minders, and the disposing of possessions. If a smart producer wants to pitch him The Spoils of Poynton, I’ll buy him or her dinner.
Nevertheless, Personal Shopper is not top drawer Assayas. I can see the joints holding it together, and when he writes in English he succumbs to the expository scenes and leaden dialogue that hobbled Clouds of Sils Maria . Anders Danielsen Lie gets an unfortunate late scene with Stewart in which he has to justify a certain decision that nobody cares about. A subplot involving threatening text messages from a possible stalker goes nowhere; when Assayas aims for Fatal Attraction I can sense him holding his nose. Best to treat Personal Shopper as another luminous Kristen Stewart vehicle. Because people are snobs about young women as public figures, she still elicits faint moos of surprise when she acts well in good pictures. In Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria , Stewart is acting down to her fingertips; I can see her nerve endings aflame as she waits for voices from another realm.