Though he has never had the kind of breakthrough hit that would guarantee a U.S. arthouse audience, Olivier Assayas has been one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last two decades. He's hard to pin down, shifting from small family dramas and chamber pieces that recall Bergman and Rohmer (Clouds of Sils Maria, Summer Hours) to international epics (the masterful Carlos) and weird genre-busting films, including the tech-paranoid Demonlover and the delirious Irma Vep, in which Hong Kong heroine Maggie Cheung (who later, briefly, became Assayas' wife) channels the villainess from the 1915 serial Les Vampires while her unstable director, Jean-Pierre Léaud, has a breakdown. Assayas is a post-New Wave director who borrows from the methods of the generation that preceded him but remains keenly attuned to the cultural and technological shifts that have followed. But while his interests seem to go in every direction, the connecting factor is a strong critical look at the way we live and communicate in the media-saturated contemporary world.
With Personal Shopper, Assayas reunites with Kristen Stewart after her revelatory supporting role in Clouds of Sils Maria (for which she became the first American actress to win a Cesar award). I'm sure that some people will complain that nothing much happens in the film, despite two supernatural episodes and a grisly murder, or that Stewart, whose flawlessly subtle performance commands every scene, isn't really acting — one critic praised her "riveting non-performance." But those responses don't do justice to the psychological depth or casually ambiguous nature of the film. It's simultaneously a ghost story in the Henry James tradition, a slightly abstract suspense film and a psychological profile of a young woman coasting through life — a cool Repulsion for the text-and-selfie age. For a movie in which nothing much happens, there's an awful lot going on.
Stewart plays Maureen, a young American in Paris struggling with solitude and juggling a network of strained relationships and mixed signals. She has a boyfriend whom she sees only via Skype, while her employer is a constantly absent celebrity for whom Maureen samples and negotiates a seemingly endless supply of expensive jewelry and haute couture garments, functioning, in a sense, as a fitting-room surrogate. (Maureen's secret vice is that she likes to surreptitiously try on her boss's clothes.) She has a mysterious admirer/communicant who teases her and makes demands via text message. And most importantly, she has a standing commitment with local spiritualists to watch for possible spirit messages from her recently deceased twin brother. (That's one reason — though certainly not the only one — that she's so tolerant of her mystery texter.)
For much of the film, Assayas simply observes Maureen as she passively navigates various personal and profession obligations, meeting with fawning dealers and designers, wandering through train stations and hotel lobbies. She's indifferent to life, yet at the same time passionately looking for some kind of meaningful communication, poring through volumes of art and trying to hear her brother in the taps and creaks of an old building.
There is a relentlessness to Personal Shopper, a sense, perfectly conveyed by Stewart, that Maureen is being gradually worn down by the trivial demands of her job and the emptiness of the online tightrope act her life has become. (Dealing with ghosts and a murder don't make things any easier.) It is also, strangely, a kind of mystery, although she doesn't know exactly what she's searching for.
Her uneasiness, Assayas suggests, comes from being bombarded from all sides by too many messages and not enough content. She's caught between the mysteries of the spiritual world and the superficial attractions of the material one, and in the long run, spirit tappings and text messages can be equally difficult to decipher. Though I suspect viewers will be divided as to whether she actually receives an answer, Stewart and Assayas turn the very process of questioning into a fascinating drama.