Slow Burn Shopper a Thinking Person’s Ghost Story
Maureen Cartwright is haunted. Whether it be by the spirit of her dead twin brother, something troubling from her past or mental illness is open to debate. The fact that she’s aware that something’s amiss may help her come to terms with her belief that she’s a medium. That her former sister-in-law and a couple buying the house where here brother lived and worked encourage this, only fuels her belief that she will receive a sign from her dead sibling from the other side.
Questions of identity abound in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper where Maureen is concerned. This is a woman that’s obviously adrift, living in a foreign city, associating with people she fails to connect with. Working as a personal shopper for a woman she seldom sees, she’s constantly tempted to try on the cutting edge fashion and expensive jewelry she delivers. She hates this job, yet has no plans to find another and does little to foster the relationship with her boyfriend. She’s lonely, but doesn’t seem to mind, content to wait for the message she believes is coming from her brother.
While the script, by Assayas contains a red herring or two, which is part and parcel of ghost stories, what’s as important is what’s not in the script. There are key elements about Maureen’s character that are not revealed. We are told that she has a heart condition like the one that killed her brother, yet we learn nothing of her parents, where she was born, what sort of work she did before her present position or what she would like to do. Not knowing these things don’t seem important at the time but once we reach the film’s ending, what we don’t know about Maureen seems more important than what we do.
As the troubled main character, Kristin Stewart is perfectly cast. Never the most demonstrative of performers, it is easy to project things upon her, which is key to understanding Maureen. She lacks identity, is searching but unsure of what for and ultimately displays a sense of frustration when she repeatedly fails to find her place. The actress is very good and willing to give herself over fully, emotionally and physically to the cause.
This is a very quiet film and employs a very long fuse, which will tax the patience of some viewers. However, it does contain two stand out sequences, one in which a brutal murder is discovered, another involving Maureen texting someone she doesn’t know (her brother?) Assayas shows great mastery and confidence here, as he takes his time building the tension during each, nearly going too far where the viewer’s patience is concerned. However, the pay-off for each is worthwhile, as the director lulls us into a false sense of security before delivering two effectively chilling moments.
The conclusion of the film is designed to prompt discussion. It appears that Maureen gets some answers to her questions until the final line of dialogue, which suddenly puts a new slant on all we’ve seen. This isn’t meant to frustrate but rather add a layer of mystery to the story. Maureen is suddenly faced with questions for which there may not be any answers and for her, nothing could be more terrifying.