For his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas cast Kristen Stewart as a personal assistant, and at the time I wrote about what a strange job that must be. Essentially, you’re an extension of someone, but you do the less glamorous things. You’re around someone rich and glamorous, but only get to orbit in their world, not take part in it.
In his follow-up film, the even better Personal Shopper, he again has Stewart in a job that destroys the identity, that of the title. She is a moorless American living in Paris and working for a socialite, going to fancy stores and picking clothing and accessories for her. It’s not a hard job, but it certainly isn’t rewarding in a sense of personal satisfaction.
The film is also a ghost story. Stewart had a twin brother who died of a congenital heart defect, one that she shares but is under close supervision for. Before her sister-in-law sells the house, Stewart attempts to see, or feel, if her brother is still there.
This makes for some creepy viewing, as Stewart seems to attract ghosts wherever she goes. She also gets involved in a murder (I won’t say of who) and a mysterious person who texts her as she goes to London and back. This scene is both fraught with suspense and a gamble–in this day and age, texts are a common form of communication, but if you would told me watching someone text for ten minutes would be exciting I would have been dubious.
Stewart is Assayas’ muse. You get the feeling he wrote the film for her. She is a big star, and did the star routine backwards–she started with the mega-hit and then went to independent films. She has made many small and interesting films, and the more I see of her the more I realize how talented she is. If you judge her talent by the Twilight films you’re making a mistake, even though she does seem to take roles that are sullen and emotionally locked people. But in Personal Shopper Assayas brings more out of her than any director I’ve seen. She is a sad person, yes. Maybe she should do a screwball comedy.
As with all of Assayas’ films (and I’ve seen seven of them, I think) they are not always easily deciphered. In Clouds of Sils Maria Stewart’s character disappears and is not seen again with no explanation. In Personal Shopper, there is a scene late in the film when she meets someone in a hotel. We don’t know what happens, though it would seem to be a key scene. It’s almost like someone cut the scene out and forgot to put it back in. You never leave an Assayas film with all the answers.
Personal Shopper, I think, is ultimately about identity. A twin has lost her other half, and is the eyes of another person though she can never wear her clothes (or her skin). She frequently says she wants to be someone else, and there is an electrifying though quiet moment when she tries on her boss’s clothes (which is forbidden, which makes it even more exciting for her). Does she envy her boss being rich and famous? Not really, I think she just envies that she is someone else.