Personal Shopper resists easy answers. As Olivier Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria, which entered its final chapter on a note of perplexing ambiguity, that’s not necessarily a surprise. Sils Maria refused to explain the apparent disappearance of Kristen Stewart’s character, while Personal Shopper sees Stewart struggle to understand her own existence. Playing Maureen, a medium who works part-time as a personal shopper for an internationally-renowned model (Nora von Waldstätten), she drifts through a film that refuses to take one shape – assuming, variously, the form of a ghost movie, a murder mystery, a psychological thriller, an art film – with a wispy, eroding sense of self.
The film’s fundamental ambiguity is integral to its success (and almost makes it nigh impossible to intelligibly synopsise, so I won’t even try). The questions asked within the narrative aren’t necessarily relatable – unless you, too, have tried to make contact with the ghost of your dead twin brother or unravel who’s sending you mysterious text messages (and whether they’re dead or alive) – but they’re driven by essential themes of identity and spirituality. Questions about who you are, who you should be, what happens after death … these don’t have easy answers, and Assayas is more preoccupied with asking than answering.
When I first saw Personal Shopper – at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year – I was preoccupied with trying to puzzle out the answers to the film’s ambiguities. Rewatching the film at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, I took a more meditative approach, allowing the film to wash over me. Each experience was equally satisfying, but the latter feels more attuned to Assayas’ intentions. The film might be multifaceted, but it also feels specific to certain experiences: questions of identity (particularly in your mid-20s) and questions of faith.
The thematic focus on identity is enriched by Stewart’s casting. That’s in large part because of the performance she delivers, which amplifies her tendency to punctuate her dialogue with mumbling and fidgeting. It’s an actorly performance that serves to accentuate her character’s discomfort within her own skin, accumulating over the course of the film into the sense that she’s ‘playing herself’ – and it’s not a role she’s happy to play.
“Do you want to be someone else?” her unknown texter asks.
“I don’t know.”
This exchange encapsulates Personal Shopper’s view of identity as something amorphous and uncertain. (Much like the wispy apparitions that loom around Stewart as she explores her dead brother’s sprawling house.) In the 21st century developed world, it feels as though our coming of age rituals have been deferred later and later into life. We enter our mid-20s contemplating questions of gender identity and sexuality and politics and religion, with the barest understanding of who we are even as we apparently assume the mantle of adulthood.
These themes are clarified by Stewart’s extratextual resonance. As Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise, the actress became an icon of teenage femininity for countless youngsters, an iconography complicated by her subsequent public image: an image of queerness, of challenges to traditional conceptions of femininity and celebrity. Moments in Personal Shopper – her eroticised experimentation with a high fashion wardrobe (a stark contrast to her otherwise normcore aesthetic), the exchange of “Are you a man or woman?”/“Does it matter?”, the synchronicity between Maureen and her dead twin brother – operate as an indirect commentary on Stewart’s fluid public persona.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Stewart is a new kind of movie star, and Personal Shopper is at once a response to and a furtherance of Stewart’s image. She’s able to convey the traditional image of Hollywood glamour – whether on the red carpet or as an object of affection in Café Society. But primarily, she represents something distinctly millennial, something queer, something not-so-easily defined, whether on-screen (in films like Certain Women or American Ultra) or off, dating women and sporting grungy fashion.
Such questions of self are intertwined with questions of spirituality within the film. There’s a matter-of-factness to the way Personal Shopper’s characters discuss spirits, but Assayas is disinterested in taking the same approach to the representation of said spirits. Ghosts are certainly real within the diegesis – they’re seen on screen on more than one occasion – but their precise intentions and identity remains unclear throughout. That might frustrate mainstream audiences (assuming the films secures a mainstream release), but it’s entirely consistent with the film’s approach to questions without easy – or any – answers.