We begin at night, in a haunted house with Maureen (Kristen Stewart) attempting to communicate with the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother, who has promised her a sign of reassurance from beyond. It’s a scene that, in lesser hands, could have taken on Scooby-Doo levels of silliness.
Under the direction of Olivier Assayas, however, and largely owing to an exceptional performance from Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper is immediately gripping. The following scenes, however, often fail to capture a similar sense of the unknown which is tantalisingly explored in the first 10 minutes.
We learn that Maureen is not only a medium, but also a personal shopper for an obnoxious celebrity. We are told that she hates her job, although we see that she is also seduced by the lavish clothes she buys but is forbidden from wearing. The clothes, somewhat taboo for her, quickly become an important part of her character’s development; Maureen beings to receive tempting text messages from an unknown source that seems to be watching her every move, taunting her to break rules and push limits.
Personal Shopper’s strengths and weaknesses come hand in hand. An uneasy stitching together of genres, it doesn’t really work as a horror film or a psychosexual mystery thriller. Its conclusions are doubly frustrating – the supernatural plot is left too open, while the real-life mystery is solved all too easily.
At the same time, it is the film’s refusal to adhere to genre rules that makes it so unsettling. There is an ambiguity as to how the two narrative strands link up, of if they do at all. If the ending is dissatisfying, the journey is wonderfully strange, particularly in its dark musings on modern technology and modes of communication.
If there was any remaining doubt left over from the Twilight era as to whether Kristen Stewart can act, Personal Shopper will surely silence the detractors. Stewart, subtle as always, makes extended sequences without dialogue deeply engrossing. One such sequence is an incredibly suspenseful set-piece involving the loading of text messages, so brilliantly executed both in direction and by Stewart that it would almost certainly intimidate Hitchcock.
Personal Shopper isn’t a particularly rewarding film, doing more to frustrate than placate. There is also an overriding feeling that Maureen is constantly a little more gripped by the mystery than the audience. But, as a character study, it is extremely effective, largely owing to the best performance of Stewart’s career so far.
Image: Gage Skigmore