Personal Shopper (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Shrouded in odd, nervous ambiguity

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Shrouded in odd, nervous ambiguity, “Personal Shopper” floats around several different story elements as alternatively baffling and fascinating us. While it is basically a ghost story, the movie also works as not only a clinical character study but also a creepy thriller, and I like its evocative mood and amorphous storytelling, even though I am still scratching my head about many things left unanswered even at the end of the film.

Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman who has worked in Paris as the personal shopper of some famous French actress. The movie often shows her handling clothes, shoes, and accessories to be worn by her busy employer who does not interact with her much, and it is apparent from Maureen’s detached attitude that she does not like her job.

She could just quit her job and go to Oman where her boyfriend works, but she has a personal reason to stay in Paris for a while. While believing in the spiritual world, she also believes that she is a medium who can communicate with dead people, and she has waited for the signal from her recently diseased twin brother, who died because of a minor cardiac defect she also has. During her routine cardiac examination at a hospital, her doctor assures her that she can live a long life despite that, but she cannot help but aware of that small possibility of death which will always be inside her for the rest of her life.

As a fellow medium, her brother promised that he will send her his signal after his death, and that reminds me of that well-known arrangement made between Harry Houdini, a famous magician who debunked many spiritualists, and his wife before his death. They agreed that he would send her their secret code if he found it possible to communicate with her after his death, but she did not receive any confirmative message from her husband during next 10 years except one case which later turned out to be a fake.

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In case of Maureen, it turns out that she does not have to wait that long. For getting any chance to contact with her brother’s spirit, she sometimes spends night alone in his empty house located outside the city, and she experiences weird things during her respective attempts. She notices a sign on the wall which seems to have never been there before. She witnesses a possible spiritual signal in the bathroom. And, above all, she beholds a very vivid and spooky happening in the middle of one night.

As she becomes more obsessed with contacting with her dead brother, we cannot help but wonder about these strange incidents. Are they really caused by her brother’s spirit? Are they simply the mental projection of her deep grief and loneliness following his death? While not giving any clear answers to these questions and many other ones, the movie focuses more on her obsession with the spiritual world as doling out some interesting things such as a TV movie about Victor Hugo, and that makes a curious contrast with the hollow materialistic side of Maureen’s daily work.

Meanwhile, another weird thing happens to Maureen when she is going to London for her work. Someone approaches to her via a text message, and the situation becomes more disturbing as she interacts more with that unknown figure, who is evasive, teasing, and a bit menacing without revealing anything substantial to Maureen (“I know you. And you know me.”)

Whoever is on the other end of the line, Maureen finds herself more affected by this sinister influence. When she happens to be alone in her employer’s apartment, she tries to look different with several things belonging to her employer, and she is later pushed further by that unknown figure, who sends a key card to a luxurious hotel room and instructs her to go there with one of her employer’s expensive garments.

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After a sudden plot turn, her situation becomes darker and creepier than before, and the director/writer Olivier Assayas, who won the Best Director Award for his film at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (he shared the award with Cristian Mungiu, who won for his film “Graduation” (2016)), gives us a number of suspenseful scenes to admire for the deft handling of mood and tension on the screen. In case of one particularly scene, it is merely driven by a series of text messages automatically appearing one by one, but it is as terrifying as that scary scene in “Halloween” (1978) where Jamie Lee Curtis’ character is helplessly cornered by a figure slowly approaching to her step by step.

As the center of the movie, Kristen Stewart is superb in her nuanced performance which is as excellent as her stellar supporting turn in Assayas’ previous film “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014). While she was one of many ambiguous elements in that film, she is always clear and direct here in this film as steadily conveying to us her character’s emotional state, and we come to care about Maureen even though we are as confounded as her.

“Personal Shopper” can be a very frustrating experience to some of you, but it will be a rewarding experience if you are well aware of what it intends to do as an unconventional film willing to go for something different. Although I remain as baffled as when I walked out of the screening room in last evening, I admire the movie a lot, and I think you should give it a chance at least.

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