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Paranormal Activity Meets Profound Grief In 'Personal Shopper'

Kristen Stewart plays a medium who is determined to communicate with the spirit of her late twin brother in <em>Personal Shopper.</em>
Carole Bethuel
Kristen Stewart plays a medium who is determined to communicate with the spirit of her late twin brother in Personal Shopper.

Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas' moody, baffling and altogether entrancing new movie, takes the form of a genre exercise as preposterous as it is irresistible. It begins as a chilling ghost story, accelerates into a Hitchcockian railway thriller, takes a sharp turn into whodunit territory, and ends somewhere alongside the abyss that separates this world from the next. Above all, the movie is a testament to the eerie powers of Kristen Stewart.

In Clouds of Sils Maria, her previous collaboration with Assayas, Stewart playfully tweaked her celebrity persona by taking on the role of an actress' assistant. Here she plays Maureen Cartwright, an American living in Paris who works as a personal shopper for a jet-setting celebrity named Kyra.

By day Maureen rides around the city on her motorcycle, stopping by various fashion houses and picking up leather pants and glittering accessories with which to fill Kyra's enormous closet.

But being a stylist to the stars isn't Maureen's true calling. She's a medium, and she's determined to communicate with the spirit of her late twin brother, Lewis, who died of a congenital heart defect that she, too, suffers from.

At night Maureen visits her brother's abandoned old house, wondering if he will make contact. Assayas has delirious fun playing with the conventions of the haunted-house genre: faucets that turn on by themselves, noisily rattling chandeliers and even a brief, spooky appearance by a digital poltergeist.

But Personal Shopper is after more than a few "gotcha!" moments. Beneath all this paranormal activity is a profound and layered examination of grief. Whether or not Lewis' death has opened up a portal to the great beyond is never fully spelled out. But it's clear enough that Maureen has been deeply altered by her loss, to the point that she no longer feels like the same person.

As the movie progresses, we learn that Maureen is waiting for a sign from her dead brother. But when a mysterious presence suddenly starts sending her teasing, menacing text messages out of the blue, Maureen's not sure what to think. Their text exchange, completely silent except for the occasional buzz of Maureen's phone, becomes the film's centerpiece — a 20-minute tour de force of suspense filmmaking. Is this her brother finally making contact? Or is it someone else, trying to fool her for some nefarious reason?

Assayas never comes right out and answers. His larger point seems to be that technology has, to some extent, made ghosts of us all. Phones and computers have turned us into fleeting, spectral presences, ostensibly more connected, yet in fact more isolated from each other than ever.

Maureen rarely sees her boss, who communicates entirely via handwritten notes. In her free time, Maureen Skypes half-heartedly with her long-distance boyfriend and watches video lectures on the Swedish abstract artist Hilma af Klint, whose paintings reflected her own forays into the spirit realm.

Personal Shopper is a powerful portrait of solitude and an incredible one-woman show for Stewart, who could be the most fascinatingly self-effacing movie star working today. She's the rare actress who can blur effortlessly into the background and magnetize the camera in the same instance.

It's fitting that Stewart's character here is a medium, a go-between. Whether she's buying couture for someone else to wear or trying to communicate with the dead, she gives the impression of someone not entirely at home with herself or her place in the mortal realm. Personal Shopper shows us a young woman racked with indecision, but there's never any doubt that Stewart knows exactly what she's doing.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.