Following 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper is the second consecutive movie by Assayas to elicit a performance from Stewart of mesmerizing nervous vitality. Though Stewart is still over-identified with the Twilight franchise’s vampire-loving Bella Swan, her Assayas’ films, and the likes of Certain Women and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, have recast her as an unformed woman struggling to cope amid the chaos of modernity. It’s ironic that so huge a star—a role Stewart is only now beginning to accept—should radiate more powerfully than any of her peers the frustrations experienced by ordinary mid-20-somethings.
In Personal Shopper, as in Sils Maria, Stewart plays a capable but put-upon assistant to a European luminary. Whereas Assayas designed the first film as a psychodrama about Juliette Binoche—cast as an art-house legend jealous of Stewart’s character’s youth, and confused by her desire for her—Personal Shopper flows from Stewart’s portrayal of a woman who both absorbs and rebels against celebrity. Simultaneously, the film probes Stewart’s native self-consciousness as her character Maureen Cartwright experiences grief and colludes in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game.
Maureen is an American in Paris who works as a lackey picking up clothes from elite designers’ ateliers for her boss, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz)—a cold German fashion icon too busy to collect her purchases herself. Like Stewart’s more self-assured Valentine in Sils Maria, Maureen is stuck in a negative power relationship with a diva who is self-evidently a controlling mother figure.
She can’t escape this misery to join her techie boyfriend in Oman because she is waiting to hear from her twin brother, Lewis, who died three months previously. (Maureen has the same heart defect as he did, a fact the movie forgets once she leaves her cardiologist’s office.) A medium who converses with the dead, Lewis made a pledge with Maureen that the first of them to die would contact the survivor. Assayas’ presentation of the ghost story is poker-faced. He doesn’t flinch from having one spirit harrowingly materializing in Lewis’s creepy empty house—but the viewer has to decide on which plane the ghost exists, whether for “real” or in Maureen’s head. Suffice to say, Personal Shopper is unusually eerie.
Being an Assayas film, it is scarcely a conventional genre entry. When Maureen submits to an insinuating dialogue with a mystery phone texter on a Eurostar trip to London, the film morphs into a bloody Hitchockian murder thriller—the distraught heroine recalling Margaret Lockwood’s discombobulated socialite in Hitch’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes. Maker of a trenchant 2002–2007 trilogy critiquing globalization (Demonlover, Clean, Boarding Gate), Assayas here uses a genre mash-up as a conduit for mocking the misuse of wealth.
Half-convinced it’s Lewis who’s texting her during the bravura 14-minute train-and-taxi sequence, Maureen breaks down and becomes paranoid, then excited at the thought of a transgression. The journey is both a vehicle for her emotional upheavals and a context for cultural commentary: what greater waste could there be of a vital young woman’s time than her spending a day trekking from London to Paris and back to collect fripperies to satisfy a celeb’s vanity? The sense of spiritual emptiness extends to Maureen, whose delusion that she’s digitally connecting with the spirit realm smacks of millennial solipsism.
Maureen’s desperate need of a sign from Lewis rationalizes her willingness to believe he texted her; an alert viewer will guess the texter’s true identity. He—for it is a male—facilitates Maureen’s rebellion against the imperious Lara. Forbidden from trying on Lara’s clothes, Maureen is encouraged by the texts (and a bottle of vodka she filches from Lara’s apartment fridge) to have a dress-up session. Loitering in Lara’s dressing room, she tries on the faux-bondage harness she picked up in London, some lingerie, heels, and a silver scalloped dress. She’s also trying on Lara’s queen-bitch power, of course, and that—and the arousing pressure of the fetish-wear—prompts her to pleasure herself.
The scene is the most erotic Stewart has filmed, but that’s not why it’s significant. Though Maureen is simultaneously regressing and liberating herself in acting out this way, Stewart breaks here with her persona’s past as the Twilight, Snow White, and On the Road girl, and even that of her strung-out sex worker in Welcome to the Rileys. Whatever Assayas and Stewart had in mind (and it may not have been the same thing), the scene comes across as a cool statement of womanliness.
Maureen’s giving herself an orgasm in Personal Shopper is redolent of a (not incestuous) yearning for intimacy in the wake of Lewis’s death. Blinded by this need, she unwittingly puts herself in the killer’s path. A ghostly phenomenon, witnessed only by the viewer, then complicates the interplay between the metaphysical and the corporeal in deciding Maureen’s fate. Typically, Stewart has made us care for her without sentimentalizing the character. We burn for Maureen’s survival and peace of mind.