As its grieving protagonist desperately tries to contact her dead brother’s spirit, “Personal Shopper” leaves more questions than answers and isn’t easy to love or wholly comprehend.
But that doesn’t mean you should avoid French auteur Olivier Assayas’ fervently unconventional grief study and ghost thriller.
Assayas, whose previous credits include “Irma Vep,” “Summer Hours” and “Clouds of Sils Maria,” continues to explore issues of death and mortality, and depict foreigners in Paris, in this English-language drama featuring “Clouds” costar Kristen Stewart.
Again, Stewart plays an American assistant to a spoiled French celebrity, this time portraying 27-year-old Maureen, who zips around town on a motorbike to buy designer clothes for her demanding socialite boss, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten).
She moonlights as a medium.
Maureen has been struggling to communicate with her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, in the creaky mansion where he died from the heart condition that she, too, was born with. Isolated and sad, she is waiting to receive the sign Lewis had said he would send her from beyond.
Spooky things happen. Faucets inexplicably turn on, a nasty apparition appears.
Maureen isn’t sure that this weirdness involves Lewis, and Assayas has viewers wondering whether some of it might exist only in Maureen’s grief-stricken mind.
Terror, and perhaps the spirit of Hitchcock, takes hold.
Maureen begins receiving menacing text messages from an unidentified stalker while riding a train to London. “I know you,” one message says. “I want you and I will have you,” says another. “R u alive or dead?” Maureen wants to know.
Assayas then enters horror terrain, with a grisly murder, and then returns to the ghosts. Transcending the limits of a genre picture, he doesn’t tidy things up or resolve the uncertainties.
Delivering both a spookfest and a grief-themed psychodrama, Assayas pulls the movie in two primary directions, which don’t quite fascinate on their own or congeal into a knockout whole. As with most supernatural stories, the plot is ludicrous.
Yet he creates a complex protagonist who combines heart and intellect, and has a way with tension, inner and external.
Containing ectoplasms, shaking chandeliers, a suspenseful texting-stalker sequence, serious consideration of technology’s dark aspects and a final passage set in Oman, the film is hit-and-miss.
But its adventure, intelligence, originality, rich mood, worthy subject and powerful lead performance make it impossible to dismiss.
Stewart, playing the only substantial character — Lewis’ girlfriend (Sigrid Bouaziz) and Kyra’s lover (Lars Eidinger) place third, behind Maureen’s cell phone — gives Maureen a resonant sadness and unease. She’s devastatingly believable when she calls out to her dead brother in a soft but desperate voice.
She even makes lines like “It’s extremely difficult to find a portal into the spirit world” almost credible, and shines in her indulgence moment, secretly slipping into her employer’s high-end dresses.
The special effects, meanwhile, aren’t a strong point. The CGI ghost looks particularly second-rate.
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstatten
Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes