Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper ★★★★★

Among the many little fragments of paranoia Stanley Donwood used to decorate Radiohead CD booklets with, one phrase stuck out to me; "Ghosts caught on CCTV". Those four words seemed so rich with possibility, both frightening and absurd. Is a ghost on CCTV laughable, because it's lost its mystery, or is it more disturbing, because it exists in a context we associate with unfakeable reality? (CCTV cameras, after all, seem to be the only ones we still believe don't lie) It seemed to hit on a reason why, despite not believing in ghosts, I've always been a sucker for ghost stories. There's something about the wide-eyed sincerity with which they're told that makes it pleasurable to drop your skepticism for a bit.

Olivier Assayas's second collaboration with Kristen Stewart might be a feature-length adaptation of those four words. It continues his exploration of the globalised world and modern technology, and provides a striking rejoinder to that old screenwriter's moan that mobile phones have killed thriller plots. Despite her curiously antique name, Maureen (Stewart) is a modern twenty-something who lives through her phone, and when someone - or something - wants to contact her, that's what it uses.

There are lots of pleasing references to Forteana throughout the film - indeed, the use of a mobile phone might itself be an Apple-era update of that old 1970s fad for "Electronic Voice Phenomena", the murky noises captured on cassette which were fancifully claimed to be messages from beyond. Describing Personal Shopper can make it sound silly, and there are just enough grace notes to let you know Assayas is very aware that his heroine moves in an absurd world of showbusiness, and this risks making everything she does absurd. But the overwhelming feeling is of a kind of anxiety that never cuts loose.

Part of the reason for this is that Assayas has stripped his film of jump scares, and his high-arthouse style actually adds nicely to this. Scenes seem to fade out and cut away before they've reached their point, background noise is pushed discomfortingly to the foreground, and plenty of time is spent watching Maureen move through spaces that clearly aren't welcoming her. As ever, Assayas is a brilliant observer of the strange new spaces created by international trade, and the start of the film draws a neat parallel between the houses of the poor, empty and dilapidated, and the houses of the international jet-set, which are much better maintained but no less empty.

Halfway through Assayas makes the supernatural threat so literal that I worried the film would be unable to come back from it, but it turns out there's nothing in Personal Shopper that can be claimed as definitive. Everything is filtered through Maureen's grief - her twin brother died at the resonant age of 27 - her loneliness, her desire to be someone else. There's a great moment when the film cuts from Stewart opening a hotel room door to her standing inside the room with her back to a mirror; without an establishing shot showing what's in the room, we momentarily think her reflection might be another person. And maybe it is.

As with Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas's reflections on youth and technology and fashion are tempered by an open-minded fondness for his characters that's rare in film-makers Stewart's age, let alone ones in their fifties. He is guided, as he was in that film, by the extraordinary naturalism of Stewart's performance, simultaneously defensive and defiant, wounded but unapologetic. Her breakdown on a train is a fantastic piece of work - a kind of photo negative of Isabelle Adjani's famous underpass scene in Possession, quivery and insular where that was flailing and operatic. But it is every bit as good, and the performance as a whole is so alive, sensitive and real it reinvents the concept of a leading lady.

Personal Shopper is the kind of unapologetically modern ghost story I've been waiting years for, dragging the return of the repressed into a society that fools itself into thinking it represses nothing and remembers everything. Is it scary? I have to confess I've never been one for separating out scariness from related concepts, so when I say it is scary I mean it's disturbing and fraught and troubling and a lot of other things that you may feel are some way off from an actual scare. There are moments when Assayas displays, almost casually, an innate knack for the rhythm of a horror scene. These, though, are just one ingredient. It seeks to bend its genre right out of shape, and in doing so it certainly twisted me into knots.

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