Assayas’ films tend to implicitly express the unsavory underside of a growing globalist system.
Whether they’re operating as incisive domestic dramas, unorthodox action thrillers or melancholy nostalgia pieces, Olivier Assayas’ films tend to implicitly express the unsavory underside of a growing globalist system and the attendant anxieties of a world opening up to endless possibilities matched by the disillusion that often comes about as a result. Working in a wide range of emotional registers, the director every so often locks into the explicitly dark headspace of the morbidly-minded techno-thriller, condensing all the mournful ambivalence of his other work into concentrated shots of horror and ennui, often aimed at unpacking the monstrous capabilities of an unchecked capitalist system. 2002’s Demonlover imagined a tussle for a groundbreaking piece of pornographic technology as corporate-centered neo-noir, while 2007’s Boarding Gate compressed this nasty collusion between pure profit and masochistic pleasure into a psychosexual mood piece, depicting its wide web of conflicts as essential clashes between competing market factors. Now, with Personal Shopper, Assayas returns to this style of sleekly configured genre gamesmanship, striking an acerbic tone which feels like a perfect fit for a world suddenly in the embrace of a particularly bracing politically induced hangover.
The film follows Kristin Stewart as Maureen, a young American floating around Paris, working a dead-end job and mourning the recent loss of her brother Lewis, who has died suddenly from a heart condition. His twin, Maureen shares the same malady. While their cardiologist continues to assure her that Lewis’ death was a freak occurrence, the possibility of her own sudden demise, in tandem with her brother’s supposed status as a spirit medium, has kept her wavering at the border between life and death, waiting for a sign from the other side. Fancying herself an artist, Maureen works on sketches at night and disdains the pointless venality of her day job as a personal shopper for a spoiled supermodel (Nora von Waldstätten), picking up haute-couture samples that she knows her boss will eventually refuse to return. Yet she keeps the position anyway, remaining aimlessly rooted to this foreign city, decision paralysis about her future locking her into a sort of shaky holding pattern.
Again exploring an unbalanced professional relationship, the film’s central dynamic is similar to that of Clouds of Sils Maria, only this time taking the side of the less powerful party. Losing more of herself with each day spent at this thankless task, Maureen begins flirting with a repressed desire to inhabit the glamorous lifestyle of her wealthy employer. Faced with a luxury apartment that’s usually uninhabited, decked out with impossibly expensive jewelry and clothing and conveniently wearing the same dress size, she’s able to fully realize this opportunity. By intermingling its timeless tale of personal loss with the modern escape of consumerist self-indulgence, Personal Shopper gains real frisson from its positioning at the far fringes of fame.
This remote perspective is appropriate, since the film is at heart a gothic story, one where a revelation of internal fragility is reflected by increasingly tenuous external circumstances, along with the literal manifestation of several varieties of ghoul. Using this tenuousness to its advantage, the film navigates an uncertain territory between straightforward horror, economically-focused thriller and paranormal detective story. Yet it never fully embodies any of these modes, using this indecision as a means of generating further tension. The flirtation with a variety of competing genre formats is matched by Maureen’s hesitant dabbling with an apparent afterlife and her eventual engagement with forces that may or may not involve any supernatural elements.
Also significant is the fact that much of the film’s central action, both in the gathering of data and the dispensation of dread which results from such new information, is largely conducted through screens. A move like this might have felt more an empty effort to tap into modern concerns over how ubiquitous electronic devices and corporately mediated messaging services have affected our personal relationships. But Personal Shopper never verges anywhere close to gimmickry. In fact, it’s a testament to Assayas’ skill as a director and Stewart’s as an actress, particularly in a riveting cat-and-mouse game played out via an intense series of iMessages, coming from a shadowy entity who may be communicating from beyond the grave. Here the standard locus of person-to-person horror is reconfigured, the trope of the mysterious caller routed through a new source of tension, which is perfectly reduced down to a familiar pattern of blinking dots, the perfect metaphor for a character whose entire existence has been left hanging.
As Personal Shopper progresses, it becomes clear that its two distinct halves – its realistically conveyed professional sphere and the spiritual netherworld in which Maureen’s quest for answers is conducted – are actually not so dissimilar. Her supermodel boss exists to be seen and Maureen’s entire job revolves around this fact, operating in a concealed sub-economy in which clothes and jewels are lent out or gifted outright in order to be spotted on this famously fashionable individual. The barely visible domain of spirits, on the other hand, remains even more inscrutable, and initially seems positioned as the pure, uncontrolled counterpoint to that hollow landscape of glitz and glamour. Yet just as Maureen’s job functions as part of a shadow structure supporting the very visible world of high-wattage star power, the film’s supernatural sector proves to be its own defined economic space, one that can just as easily be exploited to nefarious ends. What begins as a surface study in hyper-modern instability evolves into a searing indictment of global capitalism’s more insidious qualities, revealing the Mephistophelean manner in which even our most private doubts and fears are prey to the ravening power of the market.