Review: Haunted 'Personal Shopper' Captures Spirit of Contemporary Life

Kristen Stewart stars in Personal Shopper. Carole Bethuel

In the movies of French director Olivier Assayas, connections are made mostly by smartphone and computer. Plane and train tickets are purchased from kiosks, coffee and food from self-serve counters. Dinners are eaten alone in cafés while watching documentaries on a phone; train, subway and taxi rides are spent shut off from fellow passengers, thumbing out text messages and awaiting a response. This is the tense lassitude that makes up contemporary life, and no one has proved better at capturing its melancholy seduction than Assayas. In his haunting and haunted new film, Personal Shopper, human contact is so outmoded that the heroine, Kristen Stewart, barely meets the woman she works for.

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Stewart plays Maureen, a young American in Paris paying the rent by acting as personal shopper for a temperamental movie star. Maureen spends her days darting from atelier to showroom, selecting the outfits her employer will wear to premieres and charity events, choices designed to guarantee that her boss's picture will keep turning up in newspapers' red-carpet coverage. It's a grinding routine, and Maureen hates both it and the woman she works for. But the job allows her to stay in Paris—and it's in that city that she pursues a more ephemeral and elemental connection.

Three months earlier, Maureen's twin brother, Lewis, died at age 27 of a rare heart defect that Maureen shares. Her brother was a medium and promised her that, were he to die first, he'd send her a message from the other side. And so Maureen, who has her own ability to sense the presence of spirits, spends her nights by herself in the now-deserted country house that Lewis, a furniture maker, hoped to turn into both his home and his studio. Mostly she waits, wondering if each knock and creak is the sign she's waiting for. Until one night when she receives a visitation so terrifying it sends her scurrying from the house in the first light of dawn. This nerve-shredding sequence features a spectral presence that hovers in the air, a marriage seemingly of light and smoke; so simple and yet effective, it's an implicit reprimand to the overkill of CGI. It's the most convincing ghost in any movie since Jack Clayton's The Innocents, his 1961 version of The Turn of the Screw.

The comparison fits. Contemporary interpretations of Henry James's novella tend to stress that its ghosts are figments of a tormented psyche. In Personal Shopper there's no doubt as to their reality: We see them in instances when Maureen doesn't. For Assayas, the ghosts seem an implicit rebuke to the lazy and arrogant assumptions of modern life, a reminder that even in a world dominated by technology, the inexplicable still exists.

Midway through the movie, Assayas introduces both a murder-mystery subplot and a mysterious correspondent—possibly alive, possibly not—who texts Maureen and gradually works his way past her defenses. Along with the ghosts, these elements form the spiritual interrogation the movie puts Maureen through, an interrogation that will not so much settle the question of her brother's place in the next world as illuminate her place in this one.

Much of the movie consists of simply watching Maureen go about her day, from appointment to appointment, riding on trains or on her moped through the Paris streets (captured in autumnal, blue-gray twilight tones by cinematographer Yorick le Saux), making snap decisions as she flips through racks of clothing laid out for her inspection. Stewart is in nearly every scene, and she's phenomenal.

Assayas knows how to clear a space for actresses who understand how to exist in front of the camera rather than to let us catch them acting. Like Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) and Clean (2004), or Asia Argento in Boarding Gate (2007), such actresses insist we come to them, the better to register the nuances of performances that are both interior and emotionally direct. Stewart's face registers wild currents of fear and anxiety, currents that disrupt the seemingly tough, hard set of her expression like a sudden surge of the Richter scale. It's a masterfully controlled portrait of psychic vulnerability. Her Maureen comes to stand for the contemporary self-sufficiency that nags us at every turn with the specter of what's missing from our lives. In the world of Personal Shopper, we are haunted by no ghost so much as the ghost of ourselves.

Worldwide releases continue to May 12.