The official plot description of director Olivier Assayas’s new movie Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, is almost willfully vague. We know Stewart — who costarred in Assayas’s last movie The Clouds of Sils Maria — is playing a personal shopper to a Paris celebrity and that the movie is also a ghost story of sorts involving her character’s dead twin brother. But aside from those hints of horror, not many people in the audience at the first press screening Monday night were quite prepared for the weird, wild movie that careens between genres and plot points, but is held together with Stewart’s vexing performance. There were some loud boos right after the credits rolled, but then reactions online indicated that opinions were more complex — and positive — than the jeers might indicate.
Stewart indeed plays the title shopper Maureen, but when the movie opens, she’s not collecting couture — she’s spending the night at a spooky, dilapidated French mansion by herself. We learn it was owned by her twin brother Lewis, who died suddenly of a heart defect she shares. The twins also shared clairvoyant tendencies, and Maureen is in the house looking for a sign from beyond that Lewis once promised he’d give her. Instead of her dear brother though, she meets a more malevolent CGI specter. It’s only the first time Assayas scares the crap out of the audience, borrowing liberally from horror auteurs and Hitchcock alike. But Personal Shopper isn’t content with just ghost stories: Once Maureen gets back to Paris, someone starts stalking her via anonymous iMessages, an unnerving exchange that seems to turn her on as much as it freaks her out. Somehow that morphs into a murder plot that involves missing Cartier jewelry, a strangely hostile police interview, and a creepy German who’s introduced in Act 1 (you don’t need to be clairvoyant to sense he will return with ill intent later on).
It’s an insane amount of plot for any one movie to contain and Assayas can’t quite keep track of the threads. Even if it doesn’t hold together, it’s also fair to say it’s never boring. And a lot of that is due to Stewart, whose performance is both mesmerizing and unnerving. Maureen is drowning in grief, and Stewart looks about ready to crawl out of her skin. It’s a high-wire act of high anxiety, and you can’t look away. Even when you want to hide your eyes.
(Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival)