NYFF Review: PERSONAL SHOPPER – Death, Genre And Kristen Stewart

A sampling of elevated styles.

Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas are two for two, following up their meditative art piece (see: piece about art) Clouds of Sils Maria with a film best described as a genre salad. It’s a strange, unsettling, undefinable work, at times off-balance but always focused, and it allows Stewart to deliver yet another stunning performance (what feels like her dozenth in the last three years alone), further cementing her as one of this generation’s finest screen actors. If you aren't already on that train, I’d suggest hopping on.

Personal Shopper is, first and foremost, a film about death. It grounds its anxieties in five distinct areas: the European arthouse Assayas is known for, the melancholia that best suits Stewart, the conventions of horror that challenge both their instincts, a psychological crime-thriller steeped in character, and a seemingly run-of-the-mill tech thriller that receives a shot in the arm when mixed in with all the aforementioned. If you think that sounds jarring, you’d be correct. It’s as jarring as it needs to be.

Stewart’s titular shopper Maureen feels like the spiritual successor to Sils Maria‘s Valentin, an American assistant working in Europe while searching of answers that may not easily present themselves. But where Valentin was a mirror to another characer, Maureen is the epicenter of Personal Shopper’s moribund whirlwind. After the death of her twin brother from a condition they might share, Maureen follows his footsteps (and potentially, his spirit) in the hopes he’ll make good on their pact: whoever dies first contacts the other from beyond the grave. Even as a medium, Maureen doesn’t have a full handle on the world beyond and approaches it scientifically, opening door after door like she’s letting guests into her home. But they’re guests who never come, like the answers Maureen is looking for as she peeks through the frames.

While waiting for a sign from her departed sibling, she encounters twisted, ghoulish apparitions that remind her of the potential of her own impending demise. Rather than the death of her brother, what’s really holding her back and keeping her frozen in time is the idea of her own death, an idea that’s all-encompassing to her, permeating every thought and every action. Her fears are suddenly dragged into the sunlight when she begins receiving anonymous, perhaps even supernatural text messages, interrogating her about her insecurities while pushing her to find excitement in the forbidden. These texts chase her like phantasm from city to city, bidding her to try on the dresses she selects for her glamorous employer, forcing this death-obsessed wanderer to question what it is that she even lives for.

The weight of the reaper rests on Stewart’s shoulders, in a performance that spans an entire spectrum. From her broad horror-movie moments, to her silent interrogations of empty space, even to the sections of the film where whole conversations take place between her trembling hands and her iPhone, she occupies almost the entirety of the film’s runtime, and what’s more, she earns it. Unlike Valentin, whom she claims she chose because she fully understood the role, Stewart picked the part of Maureen because she didn’t. For as much as Maureen is a character, she’s also a vessel through which we’re allowed to pose questions about how we view death, and why – but even for a film so awash in morbidity, it treats our fear of death as something that we can overcome.

Assayas has a fondness for Stewart’s talent and he keeps her in the frame whenever possible (even if it’s just her apprehensive fingers), but there are moments when he breaks away from the distinctly cinematic lens through which he views his star, and not without good reason. Moments where the film’s point of view shifts jarringly and noticeably, brief enough that scenes are still grounded in Stewart’s perspective, but long enough that we notice the shift in framing and eye-line, as the camera feels momentarily untethered.

As if something, or someone, is watching her from the emptiness.