Trust a French director to find sly ways to poke fun at the surreality of Hollywood. While Americans know Kristen Stewart as someone famous, writer-director Olivier Assayas has twice cast her as a humble assistant to someone famous — first in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and now in Personal Shopper. In the former film, which won her deserved awards and acclaim, Stewart played off the luminous Juliette Binoche. In this one, she interacts mainly with glowing screens, glowy special effects and herself.
While Personal Shopper is not technically a one-woman drama, it is one of those films — like Sofia Coppola's Somewhere — that showcase one pretty person's moodiness in a succession of pretty places, like an impeccable photo-essay on ennui. Stewart plays Maureen, an American working in Paris as a personal shopper for a seldom-seen celebrity (Nora von Waldstätten). She despises the job but clings to it so she can remain in Paris awaiting a mystical sign from her recently deceased twin. Both students of spiritualism, both afflicted with the same heart defect, the pair had a pact to communicate with each other from beyond.
Whether she's hobnobbing with fashion designers or sitting in a dark house listening to things go bump in the night, Maureen has a glassy, mournful self-containment. The only things that jar her (briefly) out of her funk are ghostly visitations and equally spectral communications from her digital devices.
By draining the film of face-to-face interaction, Assayas draws an implicit parallel between metaphysical "ghosts" — which are very real in this movie — and electronic ones. Maureen's boyfriend, her employer, the long-dead spiritualists she researches — all of them exist, for her, primarily as voices and images floating in the ether. For the purposes of the film, they might as well be ghosts, too. When she begins receiving disturbing texts from an unknown number, one of the first questions Maureen fires back is, "Are you alive or dead?"
In another film, it would matter quite a bit whether Maureen's stalker were a real live person. But Assayas eventually solves this mystery carelessly, as if it were beside the point — the point being that Maureen is eager to be haunted and vulnerable to disembodied voices.
The film's biggest problem is that we don't know her well enough to understand that eagerness or that vulnerability. While Stewart's performance is naturalistic, she doesn't have the warmth or engagement here that she showed in Sils Maria, perhaps because there's almost no one to engage with.
Maureen's character is a collection of pieces that never snap together: hipster insouciance, vague artistic leanings, equally vague spiritualism — unconnected to any larger belief system — and an assumed but never explored love for her brother. In one painfully stilted scene, she rejects the offer of a job at a fashion magazine because it wouldn't give her "freedom." But we never learn what freedom means to her, besides dodging traffic on her scooter while chamber music jangles on the soundtrack.
Maureen is more cool than interesting, as if Assayas wrote her as an abstraction of an American millennial rather than an individual. While the film has loads of style — much like the outfits Maureen carts around — it doesn't have enough substance to work as a horror film (which it sometimes impersonates) or as an absorbing drama. While Clouds of Sils Maria (currently streamable on Netflix) combined cinematic gloss with theatrical vitality, Personal Shopper has the pallor of a ghost that will quickly flit from memory.