“You can reach in and feel a cool, dense fog, but then you see a magnificent light from some unknown location which brings you further in.”
by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This review contains (oblique) spoilers, in which I discuss the film’s ending in an abstract sense. While direct references are avoided, the brilliance of Personal Shopper comes from a sense of ongoing discovery, and so this review may not be advisable to those intending to see the movie.
The most essential idea in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is that of the unseen presence. There are many instances, and though they slide along in the shadows, we also feel them in every frame. Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American in Paris, is occupied by the memory of her twin brother Lewis, who died from a heart attack caused by a congenital condition. She has vowed not to leave the city until she has completed a goal related to her brother’s existence. Lewis believed in the spirit world, and the dead interfering with the living. He told Maureen that should he die first, he would send her some kind of sign. She is waiting for that signal, and remains in the city, in the job she hates, going back to her late brother’s home, attempting to summon his spirit.
Another unseen presence is her employer, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), an aloof, wealthy supermodel. Maureen is her personal shopper. Her job is to move monotonously from store to store, picking up designer outfits and taking them back to Kyra’s swanky apartment. The two are together only a few times, but Personal Shopper continues its motif of the unrealized as a key illusion. Maureen’s disdain for her is obvious, and understandable, but she can’t help but take advantage of her affluence and world. She is compelled to try on the outfits, possibly because she knows that she would be fired if her boss ever found out. One night, she enters Kyra’s luxurious walk-in closet and removes any remaining inhibitions she may have held.
But then, this overlaps with a third unseen presence: anonymous text messages that have been blowing up her phone – ominous communication from an unknown source. She doesn’t believe it to be the sign from Lewis, but who could it be? It’s someone of an apparent omnipresence, dragging her around on puppet strings, absorbing her entire being in an unacknowledged consumption. Dressed in expensive clothing that cost the average person’s annual salary, Kyra receives more messages in the apartment, and it is clear something has changed: we can no longer pretend that everything’s the same as it was before, as gradual changes have led to massive shifts. Maureen has realized the ephemeral nature of a simple, worldly identity, and continued her quest of discovery.
The film’s first question – if Maureen receives Lewis’ sign – has already been answered. Indeed, it’s from there that the real mystery and beauty of Personal Shopper begins. It becomes about an examination of Maureen, and her relationship to herself, her known others, and the unknown sender. Assayas is a master of soft manipulation, and Stewart is a wonderful actress who becomes both a window for the viewer and a clear character with whom we agree and disagree, trying to peel back the layers and find the core within.
Personal Shopper glides blissfully between the natural and the supernatural. In fact, it challenges the notion that we should separate them. It never crosses the film’s mind to question the existence of the metaphysical realm, and how it impacts and shapes the known world in profound ways. We are on a journey with Maureen as she deals with her brother’s established mortality, and her impending mortality (she has the same condition he did, and the possibility of similar complications looms). The movie then transitions into another kind of exploration altogether – from the internal struggle to the external chase, evolving and mirroring that which has been realized in a mist, blasting forward into the physical. It all has to do with Kyra, adding another way that the film circles around itself.
Stewart and Assayas have collaborated before. Clouds of Sils Maria shares superficial similarities with this film – the tale of an American assistant working for a famed European, combined with a dive into the recesses of logical limitations. Yet Personal Shopper accomplishes so much more, because its philosophy is deeper, and its perspective is far more immediate. Every feature of it – from its usage of technology, to its capturing of a social relationship to it, to the global dynamics of its characters and their situations – has an intimate tie to every story element, and every consequence. The script is a fine-tuned instrument, and the direction is a disciplined interpretation. In the suspense between foundation and construction, Assayas makes his art. You can reach in and feel a cool, dense fog, but then you see a magnificent light from some unknown location which brings you further in.
Personal Shopper has angered some viewers because of its ending, which they feel is an unsatisfying finish to the complex roads it has taken them down. Perhaps it’s arguable that there is ambiguity to the closing scenes, but what else would they want? Assayas has given all the information that the movie needs to be appreciated, and Stewart has spared nothing in her efforts to perform with the utmost integrity and fullness. The story leaves no loose ends – every connection from character to character, and plot point to plot point, is opened and closed. But we feel apprehensive when the fog has not been cleared entirely. What this movie does is push us to embrace the contradictions of the past in its relation to the future, and accept that which we cannot know. Maureen has received what she was looking for, and gone through an ordeal that came about as a result. She may not be ready to move on, but the climate has changed and the questions are new. It’s not over, and the screen fades to white, instead of to black. There is a reason for that, as the light becomes clearer, but the tapestry is grander than first imagined. This is where the soul of the film lies, and where it has always been.