Personal Shopper (2016)
Ambiguity in storytelling is a double-edged sword: it can mask a narrative that is unsure of itself or it can be a source of visual pleasure. It is used to some extent in all good filmmaking, offering imaginative pathways for viewers to bring their own interpretations to the story. But over-reliance on ambiguity is risky. The supernatural film Personal Shopper (2016) elevates ambiguity to an overarching theme. The film offers few clues on whether the story is about a grieving sister’s personal journey into the spirit world or her grief trauma psychosis or her encounters with real ghosts.
The plot hinges on a brother and sister pact that whoever dies first from their shared congenital heart condition will contact the other from the next world. It is months since her brother died, and Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is still waiting for a sign that he is at peace. Her continued emotional pain and closeness to him is palpable and she is suppressing grief trauma just enough to function. She lives in a world of shadows, both as a personal shopper for a mega-celebrity and as a spiritual medium awaiting contact with the dead. When she starts receiving unidentified text messages that appear to know too much about her, she is unsure if it is her brother or a stalker. There is unmistakable eroticism in how she reacts to the texts and in her relationship with the demanding celebrity. The texts become domineering and lead the story into unpredictable and weird territory.
Audiences hoping to witness genuine contact with a departed soul will be disappointed. In its place, they will find a disjointed montage of outer-worldly and mortally sinister possibilities that rely on the viewer joining the dots. Despite the marketing hype, this film lacks originality and narrative coherence. There is an abundance of tired ghostly tropes like floating translucent veils, self-levitating glasses, and a haunted house with creaking floorboards to make sure we know it’s a ghost story. Maureen’s job as a personal shopper is a narrative construction to reveal her fetish in dressing up and even masturbating in outrageously expensive clothes. Unless you are a voyeur for people’s private conversations, the prolonged sequences of iPhone texting from an unknown source can become tiresome. The cinematography is classically supernatural: dark, dark, and then darker scenes with some illuminated only by the whites of Kristen’s eyes. The main redeeming feature of this film is Kristen Stewart herself. Whether the script is convincing or otherwise, she has the talent to carry the role in all its mercurial variations, from the fast-talking fashionista, to terrified victim, to the sister poignantly mourning the loss of her beloved brother.
In an increasingly secular world, fans of this genre will keep searching for original, plausible, and scary supernatural films that explore the existence of an afterlife. After all, the genre itself exists to give vicarious expression to our fear of death. In one way, Personal Shopper makes a fresh contribution to the genre with its depiction of iPhone technology as the new séance platform for communicating with the unknown. But the film also falls back on old genre standbys like chatting to a ghost via the slamming of doors. Overall, it has enough eerie atmosphere, dramatic tension and unexpected twists to be entertaining, but it is Kirsten Stewart alone who saves it from mediocrity.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz