Oliver Assayas has been making films for over 30 years, and even for well-versed fans, his movies are consistently perplexing. His latest movie, Personal Shopper, is in many ways extremely similar to his previous work, especially 2014’s The Clouds of Sil Maria, but is uniquely surprising and confounding at every turn. In it, Assayas’ current muse Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal assistant to a famous actress, just as she did in Sils Maria. In that movie, Stewart’s character ran all of her employer’s affairs and read lines with her, but in Shopper, her position is less senior, and far more depressing. She rarely sees her dismissive, narcissistic boss, but nonetheless visits boutique stores on her behalf in whichever city they are in. Maureen goes by herself, buying and returning clothes with no fanfare or “thank you”s, in between needling phone calls. To distract herself from the tedium, she smokes, nervously sips espresso and Stella Artois, and draws bleak sketches of her surroundings in black ink, like she’s seeing some deeper, darker version of the world behind everything she sees.
In fact, she is; there are ominous forces lurking on the sidelines of Maureen’s monotonous existence, and they are the wrinkles that end up making Personal Shopper Assayas’ most difficult film since his much-derided but sneakily brilliant erotic thriller Boarding Gate. As in that film, Assayas’ genre-film appropriations and outlandish subject matter prove to be instantly distracting. Before we delve into Maureen’s work life, we watch her stalk around an empty mansion outside of Paris, whispering to spirits who are rattling shutters and knocking up against walls. Already, there’s a high bar for entry with Personal Shopper, as Assayas asks his art-house audience to accept that there are a bunch of characters in the film that earnestly and happily believe in ghosts. Maureen seems pretty cool-headed and collected, but she jaws about ectoplasm as casually as a Ghostbuster. Her brother Lewis was an amateur medium, and she’s playing one in an attempt to get in touch with his spirit, with the support of his ex-girlfriend and the mansion’s future owners.
By all indications, the ghost thing isn’t even a collective delusion: They actually appear at several points in the film. But the fact that ghosts actually exist in this otherwise realistic world feels ultimately less weird than the fact that these budget-CGI wraiths aren’t even the focal point of the movie’s conflict; they’re just an odd fact of life. Maureen acts like she’s expecting them, though they don’t scare her, and they’re not really supposed to scare us, either. She’s more worried about other invisible forces that move unseen through hallways, press elevator buttons, hold glasses suspended in the air and break them–ones that might be Lewis, attempting to communicate to her that there is an afterlife, as he once promised he would. These scenarios might sound like evidence of Assayas traversing into unflattering genre territory, but the horror touchstones are just the movie’s surface-level trappings. All of the themes of Assayas’ career are here, woven into a tight knot that’s hard not to pick at for many days after seeing the film, and it’s as elegant as anything he’s ever shot. The combination results in Personal Shopper being one of the true masterpieces of his long career, illustrative of everything that makes him such a challenging filmmaker.
One of Assayas’ most crucial preoccupations is the gap between the public and private worlds of his protagonists. But these public personae are as revelatory or as “real” as any other side of their personality; they’re not simply a performance, or a diversion. In Personal Shopper, Maureen–a modern, jet-setting millennial–lives out a significant portion of her in text messages, YouTube holes, and Skype chats. The film’s deeply bizarre centerpiece is a lengthy text correspondence with someone who might be a possible psychopathic killer, or a supernatural presence. In this tsunami of screenshots, we learn more about Maureen’s latent fears and desires than we do anywhere else in the film. Her tone is different in the texts: poetic, sometimes almost fragile. She admits that she is enamored with “what is forbidden”: wearing her detested employer’s clothes, sleeping in her bed, and as it turns out, carrying out the vaguely kinky iMessage requests of a threatening stranger.
An oft-declared hero of Assayas’ is French filmmaker Robert Bresson, whose theory of film holds that the actors–or “models,” as he liked to call them–manifest their “soul” in a variety of different, even contradictory spheres: through the subtle movements of their face and body, through their most banal actions and the objects they touch. A significant portion of Assayas’ film dwells on an odd and seemingly non-central part of Stewart’s character–her role as shopping coordinator–but the film’s heart resides in these scenes. In the moments when we just see an impassive Stewart wake up and do her job as if everything is normal, a sharp image of lost, grieving person begins to come into relief: a person who cycles through cities, movie sets, and boutiques, and delves into fresh garment bags, sketchpads, and spooky corridors to avoid coming directly to terms with a persistent, almost unknowable trauma. Despite the film’s supernatural, dream-like elements, the alchemical interaction of Stewart’s committed, brilliant acting and Assayas’ detail-oriented cinematography evokes something closer to the rhythms of our own unobserved lives than it’s typical to see on-screen.
Personal Shopper is a lonely-as-hell movie, and sometimes, it’s easy to worry that it’s all taking place in inside Stewart’s mind. Assayas’s fades between scenes resemble eyelids fluttering, as if we’re meant to be emerging from or falling back into a dream. During the course of the film, Maureen seems to descend further into a state of psychosis. The scenes become increasingly fractured, we lose more and more chunks of time, and it increasingly seems as if we might have been taking her perspective too much at face value. Is Maureen is manifesting her grief, which she works hard to avoid addressing, through the invisible predatory forces around her–which end up destroying whatever she touches? There’s some of Turn of the Screw here. The characters around Maureen begin to seem like apparitions embodying part of Maureen’s internal monologue: In particular, two oddly inquisitive and eerie male characters–Erwin, the boyfriend of her brother’s ex-lover (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Ingo, the jilted lover of her boss (Lars Eidinger)–feel like perverse proxies for her absent brother.
If we trust Assayas’ cinematography, however, this is not a simple case of an unreliable narrator. Logically, it wouldn’t make sense to write off every uncanny plot element as a hallucinations: Other characters see Ingo and Erwin, and her friends feel ghosts in the mansion, even if they don’t see them. There is no dream logic out of either Mulholland Drive or Vanilla Sky to explain away the plot’s contradictions and loose ends; imposing a theory on it means fudging a lot of arithmetic. It’s this fact that makes Personal Shopper, on its surface, so frustrating. It’s hard to know if our own impressions of discrete meaning are the result of reading our own oddball life experiences into Assayas’ abstract-to-blank canvas, or actually part of his cryptic roadmap. Yet every grand, puzzling gesture in this movie feels by design, even if the exact rationale behind it is carefully obscured from our view. Like so much of Assayas’ work, Shopper is custom-built to leave viewers unsettled: haunted like Maureen, striving after answers that ultimately we can only provide for ourselves. In the end, its powerful, unnerving afterglow proves its mettle.