When someone close to us dies, grief immediately punches us the gut, taking over our everyday lives. There is no choice in the matter, for the need to connect with other humans in this world doesn't allow us to slip death's jab. But is that all that troubles us in the process of mourning? Do people immediately leave this rock, or do they stick around as ghosts, staring at their broken shell?
Personal Shopper is a thoughtful meditation on the stages of grief that follow a loss and how we build our cells in order to trap ourselves, and eventually strive to move on.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) lost her brother Lucas to a heart defect, but three months have passed and she can't find a way to connect with him in order to seal a childhood pact. An American with mild fashion aspirations working for a celebrity in Paris, Maureen is adrift, a dying soul in the sea of the living who won't quit looking for what her brother left behind.
I liked the way that writer/director Olivier Assayas doesn't follow the standard rules for a dark drama that involves the existence-or lack-of ghosts. Instead of poking the obvious physical tactics in getting our attention, Assayas wisely invokes the tool of silence on the audience in many scenes of this film, wrapping our heroine Maureen in a maze hiding the distinguishing element of real and self-created.
The film presents interesting twists on themes that stretch outside the realms of cinematic pleasure, asking the ageless question: do ghosts exist, and what is their purpose in hanging around after their bodies have passed? Assayas wisely taps into our obsession with technology when Maureen starts exchanging long strings of texts with a mysterious entity, unsure if it is Lucas or something else.
Personal Shopper's greatest trait is its resistance in providing concrete answers to its lingering questions. Maureen doesn't get all the answers, so why should we? Assayas doesn't have to scream at the audience and command them to look in a certain direction; the haunting aspect of the film's central theme gives us enough to chew on. Several movies trip over themselves because they place the cart way in front of the horse, or simply give too much away. The aura of the plot's mystery here gives Maureen's struggle enough potency, asking the following question:
Do ghosts exist, or are they a self-created reflux triggered from grief?
Think about it. When people die, we become a personal shopper in their absence, searching for any resemblance of their life to connect to. The movie is about how we deal with loss, how it's our souls that have to do the heavy lifting in order to move on. It's never about the dead being at peace. At a certain point in the film, Maureen asks the ghost if he is at peace-but is she really asking herself? By conveying mystery, Personal Shopper is effortlessly haunting.
Love or hate Kristen Stewart, but the actress knows how to get a lot done without a ton of dialogue in a performance. Through facial expressions and body movement, she runs over pages of words, allowing us to fill in the blanks in her mind. This may sound nuts as someone who isn't a huge fan of her work, but other actresses couldn't have given Maureen as much as she did. The role was tailor made for Stewart's strengths as an artist. Twilight has been left far behind.
Personal Shopper felt like a companion piece to David Lowery's A Ghost Story. It moves in mysterious ways, picking the most unlikely path in a film about grief, ghosts, and grappling with what death leaves behind. The final scene refuses to place a bow on the film's message, instead letting the audience decide what's been going on for the 105-minute running time.
Personal Shopper may chill you down at first, but by the end, its powerful message stays away from melodramatic waters, which creates its own kind of power.
*Instead of binging Shameless and Ray Donovan, you can find Personal Shopper on the Showtime app.