Olivier Assayas sustains suspense with Personal Shopper 

You can tell that director Olivier Assayas wrote Personal Shopper with Kristen Stewart in mind. The entire tone of the film matches Stewart's voice and demeanor: sultry, introverted and mysterious. How you feel about the actress may temper your enjoyment of the film. She's in nearly every scene, and much of Personal Shopper's 105-minute running time shows her walking around empty houses, riding the train, watching YouTube videos and text messaging. Still, these periods are punctuated with brief moments of tremendous excitement and, anyway, I'm riveted by the ordinary.

As the title suggests, Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) works as a personal shopper in Paris for a high-profile fashion model named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). The clothes she buys for her difficult boss are expensive and extravagant, particularly compared to Maureen's subdued, somewhat tomboyish wardrobe, which consists of a lot of oversized sweaters and jeans. I mention the clothes because they're integral to the fabric (pardon the pun) of the story. Often, the shop workers ask Maureen if she wants to try on the clothes, but she's not allowed, and that only adds to the allure. Working for Kyra, Maureen is positioned right on the fringe of wealth and privilege. The film expends a good amount of energy on the idea of wanting to be someone else, and I can relate. I want to be every inch of Maureen, from her dingy basement apartment to her leather jacket and the moped she drives through the streets of Paris. If Maureen feeds on Kyra's scraps, then what does that make me, feasting on the scraps of scraps?

Personal Shopper is a ghost story, also. In her Skype conversations with her boyfriend, Gary, we learn that Maureen is waiting in Paris for a message from her deceased twin brother. Both twins were born with the same rare heart condition, and both considered themselves mediums, although Maureen is a little more uncertain. They promised each other they would send signs from the afterlife, but it's been three months, and maybe she's gotten some signs, but she can't be sure? Her skepticism feels like both a gift and a burden.

click to enlarge Kristen Stewart stars in Personal Shopper.
  • Kristen Stewart stars in Personal Shopper.

The tension ratchets up when Maureen starts receiving insistent, vaguely erotic texts from an anonymous sender. Do they come from a ghost? Probably not, but if not ghosts, then who? The plot thickens from there in ways better left unrevealed. All I will say is that what happens next is both shocking and, at the same time, the fulfillment of what we've been groomed to expect all along.

Again, I can't get away from the voyeuristic feeling I got watching Personal Shopper. For much of the film I felt like an intruder hiding in the closet, watching an unsuspecting woman through a crack in the door.

And just to run this stalker-hiding-in-the-closet metaphor into the ground: The film feels at times about as boring as a stakeout. I mean, we're literally watching her watch YouTube videos of séances from the 1960s.

But the boredom is tinged with a feeling of readiness, an anticipation that something exciting could happen at any moment. It's a testament to Assayas' filmmaking that he's able to keep us in that state of suspended anticipation. If you're anything like me, you'll leave the theater feeling sad, invigorated, and, if the film's really working on you, just a little bit ashamed of yourself.

Personal Shopper opens at the Roxy Fri., March 31.

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