Anyone who knows me will know that I love films that push at boundaries, that don't conform to expectation or normality. I loved this year's Elle for its risky but fascinating depiction of sexual assault, I adored last year's The Neon Demon for its willingness to show us things that mainstream Hollywood wouldn't dare to touch. Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, follows this trend to a certain extent. It isn't exactly boundary pushing, nor will it be controversial in any way, but it is entirely uncategorisable - I have never seen anything like it.
Assayas' film is part ghost story, part character study, part suspense thriller and part murder mystery. It rarely overlaps the four genres or tries to bind them into a whole, yet they each feel vital to the film's identity. Scenes are frequently punctuated with a fade to black followed by a hard cut pulling us into the next sequence, as if to signify another tonal shift that paradoxically feels both smooth and abrupt. It's a wholly bizarre handful of genres to put together and an even more bizarre way of handling them, but Personal Shopper has such a tight hold on everything in its palm that getting caught up in its unique ride is inevitable.
The film finds Kristen Stewart staring as Maureen, a personal shopper for supermodel Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She travels to fashion designers and picks up the outfits and accessories for her, Kyra is far too important and busy to waste time on such a trivial task. Maureen is also a medium, as was her twin brother before he died from a heart attack. Her brother suffered from the same condition as Maureen, and the two once made a pact: whichever one of them died first would find a way to communicate with the other, proving the existence of an afterlife.
But Personal Shopper doesn't stop there. It wants to be more than this. Maureen is also plagued by an unknown individual who repeatedly texts her, wanting to know and understand everything about her. She frequently stays in Kyra's apartment whenever she's out of town, trying on the clothes she's forbidden from wearing because she wants to indulge her own fears. The film's story may be simplistic but it finds a complexity within Maureen herself.
She's an immediately compelling character, and very rarely does the film push her off screen. Early on, Maureen insists that should her brother communicate with her, nothing will change. The people with whom she shares this side of her life see a distant and almost robotic person merely working through the motions of a pact once made with her brother, yet the moments we spend alone with Maureen in the house her brother died in demonstrate a woman deeply longing for answers and truths.
An early portion of the film abandons spoken dialogue, simply letting the words flow through Maureen's text conversation with the unknown number. We follow her day to day life, travelling from Paris to London and back for her job, but we learn about her mentality and begin to understand her at the same time. She sits on a train surrounded by strangers with whom she doesn't speak, yet when one texts her and asks what she fears, she gives up the answer almost immediately.
The film even turns this into a heart stopping, almost Hitchcockian tension piece in the climax when Maureen turns her phone back on and a backlog of texts roll in one by one - it may sound trivial, but when the messages are telling her that the sender is approaching her hotel room and the final one reads "I'm on the landing", try not to feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Assayas turns what could be a gimmick into a masterstroke in simple tension, creating a unique atmosphere in a film that consistently surprises.
Personal Shopper is not for everyone. Boy, is that obvious. It doesn't spoon feed answers in the final act, it doesn't aim for crowd pleasing horror scares or simple plot twists, it has no intention of moving at a quick pace. This is slow and melancholy and thoughtful, but it never sacrifices character or thematic content in favour of being weird for the mere sake of it. At its core, it's an exploration of grief. Further still, it looks at self perception and how we react to the parts of ourselves rooted deep within. If you want easy answers, Personal Shopper is not for you - it's far too intelligent and unique for that.
At the centre of it all, though, is Stewart herself. It's bad form as a critic, but I struggle to find a single word that does her performance here justice. She makes Maureen's everyday life feel tedious and lacking, yet whenever Personal Shopper shifts into horror mode it's the fear and desperation on Stewart's face that draws in all the tension. The film's final shot, an elongated take that focuses on her face for one final conversation with the dead, demonstrates her emotional range with more success than most actors could ever dream of. Personal Shopper is a terrific film, and Kristen Stewart is the pinnacle of its success. One of the year's best.