It’s hard to be sure exactly what’s happening in Olivier Assayas’ elusive, shadowy drama “Personal Shopper” — and that is, of course, the point.
Kristen Stewart (so good in Assayas’ previous film, “Clouds of Sils Maria”) plays Maureen, a young American in Paris whose habitual quiet masks a terrible loss — the recent death of her twin brother, Lewis. She works as a personal shopper to a celebrity (Nora von Waldstatten), spending her days dutifully schlepping garment bags and choosing belts and purses. When night falls, her attention turns to her true avocation: as a “ghost whisperer” who attempts to contact the spirits of the dead; notably, her lost brother. “What are you doing in Paris?” someone asks her. “I’m ... waiting,” she replies.
“Personal Shopper” is the kind of movie that gives its viewers space to explore the noises with which Maureen lives, and the silence in which she waits: the skriitch of hangers on a rack; the eerie, unexpected pulse of a Skype ringtone; the metallic tap of texting; the echoing thump of footsteps in a remote house where Maureen doesn’t know if she’s alone.
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And we see some ghostly visions — like smoke that momentarily hangs in the air, forming a shape — but, as in so many ghost stories, we don’t know if they’re real or a figment of Maureen’s imagination. (We learn that she, like her brother, has a weak heart; a doctor advises her to avoid “intense physical effort and extreme emotions.”)
Assayas brings an elegant tension to Maureen’s story, particularly a long exchange with a mysterious texter (the words “Text from Unknown” never seemed so fraught) who seems to be taunting her. “Lewis?” she types, hesitantly. And Stewart lets us see both Maureen’s tough shell (she has a brisk, poignant efficiency in her job) and the vulnerable heart that it guards. The jewelry, dresses and handbags seem trivial yet tangible; something solid that’s she’s drawn to, in contrast with the dark, airy mysteries swirling in the rest of her life.
“Is it you,” she finally asks a seemingly empty room, wondering if Lewis’ spirit is there, “or is it just me?” Are we alone, or is there more than we know? “Personal Shopper” is less interested in the answer than in, hauntingly, posing the question.
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☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstatten, Anders Danielsen Lie.
Rated: R (strong language, sexuality, nudity, and bloody, violent image)
Running time: 105 min.