PERSONAL SHOPPER: Fashion, Grief and Ghosts

Kristen Stewart is haunted in Olivier Assayas’ genre-defying film.

It is nighttime and a young woman slowly walks the rooms of a large, darkened house. “Lewis?” She timidly calls out, receiving no response but the creaks of an aging building. Thus Personal Shopper introduces us to Maureen, the lead played by Kristen Stewart in the latest film from director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Clouds of Sils Maria). When Maureen isn’t making stylish purchases for her famous client, she attempts to make contact with the spirit of her dead twin brother.

Maureen’s job is lonely work, befitting the solitary nature of Assayas’ film. She is alone onscreen for much of Personal Shopper: zipping through Paris streets on her scooter to the accompaniment of Baroque music, watching videos on her phone on the subway or in cafes, or texting with a stranger on a train to London. Decked out in jeans and t-shirts, Maureen touches and feels the textures of fabrics as she picks out the pricey outfit components for her client. Her longing to wear the items herself is obvious. She confesses this desire to the unknown someone who is texting and encouraging her deceit.

The recent unexpected passing of Lewis, Maureen’s brother, adds a tinge of survivor’s guilt to her actions. Personal Shopper is layers upon layers of story, but primarily it is about Maureen’s grief. Assayas infuses elements of ghost stories and thrillers into this tale of mourning. Maureen, who claims to be a medium, steadfastly believes Lewis is trying to reach out to her from the dead; around this spiritualist theme, the larger film inserts “clips” about Swedish abstract artist Hilma af Klint and a dramatic retelling of author Victor Hugo’s seance experiments.

While the “whodunnit” aspect of the film is easy to guess, Personal Shopper is no less mysterious or suspenseful as a whole. Kristen Stewart gives an impeccably subdued performance, relaying Maureen’s anxiety, worry, and regret. Using creative sound design and some slightly less impressive visual effects, Assayas’ work hearkens back to the 19th Century spiritualist craze with 21st Century style. Personal Shopper will leave you considering and questioning it days after you’ve left the theater.

Personal Shopper opens Friday, March 24, in Austin at the Regal Arbor and Violet Crown Cinema.

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