Kristen Stewart won a Cesar Award for Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, and she now reteams with writer/director Assayas for a new movie called Personal Shopper. It’s a slightly trashy weird artsy Euro horror movie, and while it won’t be for everyone, it did scare the bejeebus out of me. Stewart stars as Maureen, a personal shopper in Paris who works with a busy and temperamental celebrity, Kyra (German actress Nora von Waldstätten). In between shopping trips and keeping Kyra’s life sorted, Maureen spends time trying to make contact with her dead twin brother.
It doesn’t seem like those two things should work together, but Assayas keeps the story afloat and Stewart, continuing her streak of better and better performances, anchors the whole thing. There’s a vulpine edginess in Stewart’s performance that balances Maureen’s practical grief and metaphysical haunting so that they are inseparable. Maureen is haunted by her brother, the Beyond, her own precarious future, an unknown confidante texting her almost obsessively—there isn’t a facet of Maureen’s life that doesn’t feel like she’s being stalked. Through it all, Stewart maintains a fraught energy and her consistency allows the story to seesaw between the mundane and the spiritual.
The horror is restricted mostly to atmosphere and sound effects, which is what makes it so effective. The settings, the sounds, Maureen’s tension—all of it goes to work from the very beginning and ratchets up steadily throughout the movie. There is a rather spectacular ghost effect—as well as some charmingly old-fashioned practical haunting effects—but the scariest stuff is the simplest stuff, like noises coming from behind a door. Assayas doesn’t rely on jump scares as much as the universal human fear of the unknown.
But there’s lifestyle porn, too! Name brands that get dropped include Chanel, Hermes, and Cartier, and there are plenty of beauty shots of couture and jewelry and Kyra’s closet, and Maureen indulges in a little fashion show as she tries on Kyra’s forbidden garments. Personal Shopper reminds me of The Neon Demon, which also combines horror with high fashion, and relies on a strong central performance to hold it all together. (What does it say about the fashion world that people keep setting horror movies within it?)
With Maureen mired in grief and made anxious by the unknown sender of dozens of invasive texts, it is her own mental anguish that makes whether or not she’s actually communicating with spirits impossible to know. Assayas and Stewart take Maureen at face value, but still Assayas constructs the story so that there are never any witnesses to Maureen’s supernatural events. We’re left to wonder what is real and what is just Maureen’s imagination, and whether or not it even matters when the effect is so tangible and terrifying.
There won’t be any middle ground with a film like Personal Shopper. It’s too strange and defies neat categorization—you’ll either love it or hate it. If you’re open to the strange nature of the film and its duality, then you’re in for a good time with a truly unique film. But if the idea of a film in which Kristen Stewart talks to ghosts AND models couture doesn’t appeal—and seriously, why wouldn’t it?—then this probably isn’t for you. But for those willing to try it, Personal Shopper is both eye candy and spine-tingling terror.