The easiest entry point into Personal Shopper is through Olivier Assayas previous films, which have one thing in common, in spite of being set in many different genres. They all portray different kinds of border crossings, of transgressions, of walking a fine line between two things. Some of them fluctuate between the literal and the figurative border crossings of criminal activities, terrorism and freedom fighting (and all the ways that the three become muddled), some follow straight-forward criminals, some, like the masterpiece Clean, a musician who is struggling to get her life together for the sake of being able to care for her child. These films take place in the most literal in-between places, when their characters cross country borders, or seamlessly switch from one language to the next - Assayas always expects his viewers to be polyglotts of sorts, able to follow the characters without getting confused, while still feeling with them that sometimes disorienting feeling of crossing into a new space, and moving within new parametres and rules.
There are some literal border crossings in Personal Shopper, which like many other films by Assayas is carried by a singular performance by one actress. Kristen Stewart's Maureen crosses the channel between Paris and London. She listens to documentaries about artists in Swedish, while navigating a Parisian landscape, while speaking English to everyone she meets, while her boyfriend does the same kind of border crossing thousands of miles away in Oman, on the other side of a shaky skype conversation. The woman who employs her is of undetermined nationality, but played by Vienna-born actress Nora von Waldstätten.
The less literal border that the film is crosses is into the paranormal, and unlike many other recent offerings, it is as straight-forward about that corssing as it is about its more literal ones. There is no question here whether ghosts exists, and whether they haunt Maureen. There is pictoral evidence of their existence, as they hover and drop glasses, and leave marks - the remaining question is what their identity and intention is, which is where Personal Shopper leaves the interpretation to the viewers, and refuses to answer questions. We know that Maureen is stuck in Paris because her brother, who lived there, passed away - and since they were twins, and both mediums, and both suffer from the same heart condition that cost his life, they made a pact that either of them would contact the other from the afterlife. So she is waiting for that exact contact, but the fact that she does end up being haunted by ghosts may only be a correlation, not necessarily causality. We never get definite evidence that the ghost or ghosts that we see on screen are in fact Lewis - we only get a sense that whoever haunts her is angry, not tender, at best playful and at worst vindictive and careless with her life. Some kind of ghosts manages to haunt her phone (and Personal Shopper does a rather fantastic job at incorporating Maureen's mobile phone into the story, the way a phone may in fact dominate the life of someone stranded in a foreign country working a very unique and alienating job), and leads her straight into what turns out to be a short-lived crime story regarding the eventual fate of Kyra, the person she works for.
And this is perhaps the part of the film that worked the best for me - where the idea of Maureen trying to be contacted by her brother and trying to find clear evidence of that contact collapses into her identity as a personal shopper for Kyra, a model, who she barely ever meets. The way that Maureen exists in that role, in that job, is almost like a ghost - she visits stores to pick up clothes for Kyra, that she might or might not wear, or even insist on keeping, and then drops them off in her ridiculously expensive apartment, only to go home without really seeing much of the person that she guards so closely. One whole scene of avoided contact takes place when Maureen is desperate to talk to Kyra about a piece of clothing the latter has to return but ends up being shrugged off, like an annoyance, something that also happens to what turns out to be the eventually vengeful ex-boyfriend. There is something undeniable ghostlike about Maureen's entire existence in this city that she is stuck in, in a barely-lived in cheap apartment, around her brother's girlfriend who is ready to move on, and her brother's home, which seems to always have been a very hauntable mansion.
In many ways, Assayas was more effective in some of his previous films - more emotionally haunting in Clean, more devastating in Demonlover, engaging in Boarding Gate, historically interesting in Carlos and conventionally intellectual in The Clouds of Sils Maria - but there is a very specific, quiet quality to Personal Shopper that I feel will age very well, along with this truly outstanding and very personal performance by Kristen Stewart.
2016, directed by Olivier Assayas, starring Kristen Stewart.