Personal Shopper ★★★½

A reviewer wrote of “Personal Shopper” that it was “uncategorisable but undeniably terrifying.” And in truth, it doesn’t play like any other film I can readily remember. An amalgamation of ghost story, thriller, and indie drama, this one defies easy categorization. And that’s not a bad thing.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American woman, lives in Paris and works as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora Waldstätten), a famous model. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis recently died from a rare heart condition that Maureen also has. Both Lewis and Maureen believe in spiritualism, and Maureen spends her free time looking for signs of life-after-death from Lewis. Sometimes she feels like she is getting them and other times it seems like it’s all in her head. Meanwhile, Kyra’s lover Ingo (Lars Eidinger) knows that Kyra plans to dump him, but shrugs it off. Maureen begins to get text messages from an unknown number, and wonders if they’re from her dead brother or someone pranking her.

That may not seem like much of a plot to build a movie around, but it’s probably as much as I can share without getting into the realm of spoilers. Part of the joy of this moody, atmospheric film, comes from its very real surprises. Because it doesn’t play like anything I’ve ever seen, I rarely knew what was coming next. I don’t know that I agree with the earlier commentary about it being an undeniably frightening film, but I did find some of the plot twists truly shocking.

Director Olivier Assayas wrote the film for Stewart, an actress he had worked with earlier, and the film brings out the best in her. Stewart inhabits the moody, millennial character of Maureen perfectly, slouching her way through much of the movie, and then picking her moments for heightened levels of emotion. I wasn’t always moved by the performance, but I found her utterly believable in the part; this was the most compelling thing I’ve seen from Stewart.

Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux bathe the film in greys and blues. In the dim lighting, colors and shapes bleed together, creating eerie compositions. At times, it is hard to tell what is real and what is supernatural. The lines between various planes of existence blur here, and the audience is left to come to their own conclusions.

The final act of the movie involves some truly strange occurrences, most of which are unexplained. We are left to draw inferences about mysterious events. Who dropped that glass? Who opened and closed the door? Who was in the hotel room? It’s like a mystery novel in which we are the detective. An audience member raised on Disney or Harry Potter might find the ambiguity off-putting, but I appreciated the ways in which Assayas leaves room for us to fill in the blanks. There are several possible interpretations of the films’ ending, and my wife and I discussed a few of them. I don’t know if we ever decided which one was the “right” interpretation and I don’t know how much I care.

This is a film about finding our own way through grief, pain, and the uncertainty of mortality. Assayas and Stewart do an excellent job of letting us walk along with Maureen in her journey, without the need to explain everything she sees or does. And if the film does not finally find a strong emotional resonance, it at least never lets us go. The ultimate sensation becomes one of staring at a piece of art, only to realize that the framed object we’re examining is not actually a picture, but a mirror.