Olivier Assayas explores the uncertainty of an age old question in his quiet haunter Personal Shopper, using the afterlife, its existence or nonexistence, to reflect on how we deal with grief and loss. It’s subtle, often creeping narrative, provides a powerful vehicle for its emotionally-fused ghost story that is completely sold by Kristen Stewart’s powerful performance. In it, a personal shopper in Paris refuses to leave the city until she makes contact with her twin brother who previously died there. Her life becomes more complicated when a mysterious person contacts her via text message.
First of all, credit to Assayas for making a movie about ghosts and the afterlife and calling it Personal Shopper—that’s certainly something of a gamble, especially for a horror film. Don’t worry, though, it’s not about buying cute dresses and accessories for rich people (although there is some of that; hence the title). Rather, Assayas’ Personal Shopper is much more interested in examining the ways in which we deal with loss through a more traditional and poignant ghost story.
Assayas’ stance on the existence of ghosts is funneled through the eyes of his film’s main character Maureen, who had been waiting for a sign from her dead brother before she could move on with her own life. It’s a heartbreaking thought—to be waiting for something for so long that everyone around you believes is fabricated. And that, too, is what I found so endearing about Personal Shopper because although many of the people surrounding her didn’t believe in the afterlife, it was all very real to Maureen. So Assayas goes to work with that, making it very clear that ghosts (to Maureen anyway) are as real as the air we breathe.
At its best, Personal Shopper is a thought-provoking and delicate ghost story rooted in emotional anguish. It takes this sad story, one that’s grounded and relatable, and leans hard into something otherworldly and sometimes even terrifying—Maureen gets her answers, but they aren’t at all what she expected. Its intimate take on the afterlife often hits hard, especially when the film is focused on the heart of the story—dealing with loss. There aren’t many, but a few scenes are downright jarring and creepy, keeping the audience on its toes as Maureen navigates her way through a life without her brother.
So when the film fixates on the ghosts and Maureen’s attempt to contact her dead brother, Personal Shopper is powerful and heartbreaking. But that isn’t always the case, unfortunately, as Assayas throws in a middle act that feels forced and clumsy—its sudden tonal shift felt out of place with the rest of the narrative. Eventually it does get back to what was so well established in the beginning (making that middle act feel even more awkward), closing with a final scene that will haunt you long after it ends. I really like what Assayas has done here, creating a unique ghost story with traditional roots. His quiet approach to horror is the kind that sneaks up on you and lingers, even if it’s not so much about the terror of ghosts but rather not knowing if they actually exist.