“Personal Shopper” juggles several themes at once — so many that it seems that the film could drop a few and it would be inconsequential to the narrative. As a whole, however, the film suggests that incoherence serves a purpose, and thus, plot is not necessarily central to the film’s thesis.
“Personal Shopper” follows Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), a 27-year-old American woman living in Paris while she recovers from grief after the sudden death of her twin brother. While in Europe, Maureen is working as a personal shopper for a wealthy, self-absorbed French socialite. On an average day, Maureen travels around the city to pick up thousands of dollars worth of clothes — from Chanel dresses to Cartier jewels. The film is gorgeously dark as it engages with themes of trauma, isolation and intangibility.
As a personal shopper, Maureen has unique opportunities to live a very common fantasy: to be someone else for a moment, someone other than herself. This intersects with Maureen’s abilities as a medium — she can sense and interact with the spirits of the dead. Both of these roles serve as metaphors for Maureen’s ability to move across social boundaries: She’s a middle-class American who’s able to inhibit the world of upper-class French fashionistas and socialites. She is a mediator between socioeconomic classes. Maureen doesn’t seem to wish she were rich, but instead she wishes she could be anyone but herself.
The film begins by posing unanswerable questions to the audience. In this way, the film’s form parallels that of the 1960s French New Wave — which makes absolute sense given that the film is directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. It operates in a chapter-like structure, where fades are ellipses between scenes. There’s an assumption that as the film goes on, our questions will be demystified, but the overarching theme is “life’s great unanswerable questions.”
Although Maureen spends a lot of time by herself, she is never really alone — she receives malevolent text messages that simultaneously feel like uncomfortable messages from a stalker and uncomfortable messages from a crush. The use of technology might not sit right at first, but when situated in the digital age through anecdotes about YouTube and social media, the texts serve a purpose: They remind us how terrifying it is that when we carry around our phones, we’re never really alone. We feel that we’re always being watched, tracked and surveilled.
For several moments throughout “Personal Shopper,” the camera stalks Maureen through long tracking shots, giving it a sinister air of surveillance. The film is bookended by haunting scenes of Maureen alone while trying to communicate with the spirit of her brother.
When the film ended, there was a palpable sense of confusion in the theatre. Questions lingered, starting with “Where is Maureen’s brother?” and “Was this really a film about texting and read receipts?” — and ending with a sense of irony.
The film is introspective; it requires time for digestion. After a while, it becomes clear that several of the conflicts are resolved — the conflict that would be most consequential in an American film is answered swiftly with no strings attached, which is shocking to an audience unfamiliar with narratives that don’t drain every conflict of its last drop of blood.
The philosophical and existential conflict of the film cannot be resolved: grief. The questions of how to cope with loss have no exact answers. We have to learn how to deal with the sense that someone’s presence in our life does not end or disappear when they leave us.
The film seems most preoccupied with cultivating this sense of disorientation and hopelessness in the audience, and does so through its position as a thriller film. Because Maureen has an awareness of specters, there is an omnipresent sense that she is never alone, always surveilled, despite her inner loneliness. We’re used to thrillers that reveal who the stalkers are, who killed whom with the candlestick in the conservatory. “Personal Shopper” isn’t out to give us all the answers.