“There were about nine movies in there,” said my friend Stephen as the credits rolled on Personal Shopper. I knew what he meant, though personally I only counted three — so deftly interwoven by writer/director Olivier Assayas that they feel like slyly shifting levels of the same seductive reality.
On one level, it’s a straight-up ghost story. As the film opens, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) — an American in present-day Paris — is willingly choosing to spend the night in a dark, empty, secluded house. She’s trying to connect with a spirit, though it’s not initially clear why.
At daybreak, Maureen hops on her chic scooter and motors into the second movie: a very French film about an ennui-stricken personal shopper for Kyra (Nora van Waldstätten), a famed model. Adrift in her own life, Maureen moves with bored confidence through a world of impossibly expensive jewelry and translucent dresses to be worn with peekaboo “harnesses.”
Eventually, Maureen starts getting pushy texts from an unknown number, initiating the third movie: a mystery thriller. The correspondent seems to know her intimately, and encourages her to literally try Kyra’s lifestyle on for herself. It’s liberating, but the correspondent may not have Maureen’s — let along Kyra’s — best interests at heart.
There are lots of opportunities for Personal Shopper to go wrong, and at times it veers close to self-parody. Perhaps no film this aesthetically ambitious has ever made text messages a central means of communication, and there are a few too many scenes involving Stewart yanking her phone out of her back pocket. Even so, Assayas keeps us engaged by refusing to let the film be pinned down to a single narrative.
Maureen’s haunted by several things at once — some spiritual, some psychological — and Stewart’s performance is a virtuoso balancing act of inner turmoil amidst outer assurance. As he did in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas casts Stewart as a young woman who moves in privileged circles as an outsider. In a sense she’s a stand-in for the viewer, but Yorick Le Saux’s camera captures her with such ravishing beauty that we see her as also being completely at home in that rarified world.
With XX, Get Out, and now Personal Shopper, spring 2017 is becoming an unexpected renaissance for creative horror films. Personal Shopper is a scary movie that global cinephiles can enjoy along with popcorn-munching fear fans, and because its traditionally disparate genres play according to such different rules, developments that might seem jaw-droppingly obvious in another context still take us by surprise. Qui vas-tu appeler, mon frere?