By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Kristin Stewart and her cell phone co-star in “Personal Shopper,” a ghost story for the cyber age. Since Stewart always looks slightly haunted, you could almost say it’s typecasting.
However, the typecasting here is of a different sort. As she did in “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” Stewart is again playing the personal assistant to a powerful woman. But while the core of “Sils Maria” was the give-and-take between her and Juliette Binoche (the self-absorbed actor who employs her), the boss in “Personal Shopper” is more a plot device than anything else. This movie is all about Stewart; thankfully, she’s such an intriguing actor, she can handle it.
The film reunites her with director Olivier Assayas, who also made “Sils Maria.” However, Stewart’s character, Maureen, does more than buzz around Paris and London on her moped, picking out expensive clothes, jewelry, etc. at the highest-end-imaginable shops; she’s also something of a ghostbuster. When people think about buying a house, they hire her to psych the place out – just in case any malevolent restless spirits are still in residence.
In fact, when we meet her, Maureen is involved in her own personal ghost story. Her twin brother, Louis, recently died from a heart problem that afflicts them both. They’ve also made a pact; whoever went first would try to contact the other.
So when her cell starts acting up, sending her spooky messages from “Unknown,” Maureen doesn’t necessarily assume it’s Louis. But still….
And when the messages become increasingly aggressive and intrusive, well, what was that about malevolent spirits?
In the meantime, there are gazillion-dollar dresses to buy and accessorize. But not wear. Never. Not even try on. That’s one of her boss’s inviolate rules. So when “Unknown” suggests she do just that, several red flags go up.
On a purely narrative level, “Personal Shopper’ is something of a mess. Obviously, story isn’t what interests Assayas. Rather, he shares with us a personal obsession of sorts – his fascination with his leading lady.
This is hardly unprecedented. Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg come to mind. But watching such a watchful film – sometimes it borders on Peeping Tom-ism – turns us all into voyeurs. In an unsettling way, we become complicit with Maureen’s … stalker?
“Personal Shopper” is not a warm ‘n fuzzy movie. It exists at a remove, all the better to give us chills and ask some questions. You could call it Brechtian alienation – except, Bertolt Brecht never dreamed of cell phones and the internet and texting and Facebook and all the myriad ways our lives can be intruded upon these days. In comparison, a haunted house seems almost quaint.