Near the end of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria the Kristen Stewart character, Valentine, seems to vanish from the film, having wandered away while on a hiking trip with her employer, an insecure and emotionally needy stage actress played by Juliette Binoche. Assayas’ latest is Personal Shopper, a kind of spiritual sequel to Clouds in which Stewart rematerializes as Maureen, assistant to another high-powered and demanding woman very much in the public eye, this time a fashion model and philanthropist based in Paris. Maureen is revealed to be grappling with heavier traumas than Valentine was: a fledgling spiritualist, she’s anxiously awaiting a sign from the recently deceased twin brother who had promised to contact her from beyond the grave after his death. But thinking about the broader continuities between the two films becomes helpful in understanding what Assayas is doing here, since Personal Shopper is otherwise such a curious and enigmatic work. Though it flirts with the tropes of Gothic horror, the film is ultimately about Maureen’s struggle to define herself, her desires, and her relationships within a densely mediated and globalized twenty-first-century world—mediation and globalization being two of the recurrent themes of Assayas’ career.
Like so many young professionals on the make, Maureen is a person without a life of her own: she shuttles between Paris and London, tries to keep a long-distance thing going with a boyfriend in the Middle East, sleeps in apartments that belong to other people. Much like Valentine, she’s living in the shadow of another woman, having sublimated her own wishes and what appears to be an interest in visual art in order to serve her boss. Personal Shopper is a postmodern ghost story in which people like Maureen are moved to question their own existence. (At one point she confesses to wanting to be someone else.) The film is set in a bustling and alienated world—our own—in which all people are transient and all communication is virtual.
Maureen has almost no in-person interactions with others; she interfaces through Skype and text, or else awaits visitation from spirits in what appear to be empty rooms. This may be one reason why Personal Shopper, for all its compelling ideas, is so less satisfying than Clouds. It’s missing the dynamics (between characters, between actors) that made that film so compulsively watchable. Where Clouds was a brilliant ensemble piece, Personal Shopper is a one-woman show desperately in need of some other people. Both films find Stewart refining a screen persona that’s sui generis in contemporary cinema—androgynous, tightly wound, aloof, a bundle of exposed nerves. But without someone to play off of, like Binoche in Clouds or Lily Gladstone in last year’s Certain Women, she flounders. There are some superbly devised moments in Personal Shopper, such as a suspenseful text conversation between Maureen and a mysterious interlocutor, and a scene in which Maureen is goaded into trying on one of her employer’s sexiest outfits. The film never finds a way to consolidate its themes, though. Assayas has always been more interested in exploration than in resolution, which has made him one of our most interesting filmmakers as well as one of our most frustrating. At the end of Personal Shopper we’re left, like Maureen, waiting for an answer that never seems to come.