One of the big problems with the traditional ‘jump scare’ is that it serves as a release valve. Tension builds up and builds up, but then a moment of jolting fright – whether it’s a cat leaping out of a cupboard or a killer looming into view holding an axe – allows all that tension to escape like a blast of steam.
Other, more measured thrillers and horror films do something else: They fail to provide those release valve moments, meaning the tension simply builds and builds for 100 or so minutes. Personal Shopper is one of those movies.
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen, a 20-something assistant to Paris supermodel Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). Maureen’s job allows her to skirt around the outer edges of Kyra’s glamorous lifestyle, as she purchases outrageously expensive handbags or bits of jewelry, or heads off on shopping expeditions to London in search of the latest close-fitting dress.
If Maureen seems lonely and detached, there’s a good reason for that since her brother died one year earlier of a heart attack – and Maureen shares the same inherited defect which means she could also meet the same fate. The morbid air is underlined by Maureen’s secret ability to summon up the spirits of the dead; early in the film, she returns to the deserted, grand family home she and her brother once shared, and experiences a quietly terrifying close encounter of the spooky kind.
Not long afterward, Maureen starts to experience a more prosaic kind of chill: She receives text messages from an unknown sender, who seems to know more about Maureen’s movements and private life than is comfortable. Is the person sending the texts a regular stalker or is this too some kind of supernatural experience?
From these building blocks, Assayas builds a story which defies easy generic pigeon-holing. There are moments of the unearthly that wouldn’t look out of place in a Blumhouse film, nestled alongside scenes of Hitchcockian tension (the part of the film where Maureen starts receiving the text messages are masterfully directed). Yet far from a typical thriller, Personal Shopper is overwhelmingly a portrait of a particularly modern kind of isolation. Maureen’s job is a 21st century phenomenon all by itself. It follows her around, isn’t restricted by traditional nine-to-five hours or a desk, and in some respects seems like wish-fulfilment.
On the other hand, Maureen’s travelling around and constant use of mobile phones, laptops and Skype underline our sense of technological loneliness. We see Maureen interact with other people now and again – we meet her icy boss once, and a handful of other characters swept up in her orbit – but more often than not, we see the character alone, drifting from place to place on trains or via her little scooter.
All of this means that Stewart, who previously collaborated with Assayas on his last film, The Clouds Of Sils Maria, has to carry the film single-handed, and it’s a job she carries off perfectly. Quiet, intelligent, introspective, she makes Maureen a fascinating character to watch.
In some respects, Personal Shopper‘s slipperiness and shifts in genre might leave those expecting a straight supernatural thriller feeling nonplussed; but as a film that uses the trappings of ghost stories and stalker-thrillers to tell its story, it’s an absorbing piece of storytelling. In the digital age, Personal Shopper seems to say that technology turns all of us into ghosts, passing by one another like pale wisps, detached voices floating in the ether.
Personal Shopper is in theaters now.