The young heroes of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” must rescue themselves from a terrifying place known as the Upside-Down. In “Personal Shopper,” writer-director Olivier Assayas examines a realm more familiar to young adults in their 20s: the In-Between.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) finds herself there, spinning her wheels in the titular job, a supposedly glamorous assignment that’s nothing like a career, as does her twin brother Lewis, who’s also stuck between one place and the next. That Lewis is recently dead and Maureen is a medium attempting to locate him and to help him along on his journey should come as little surprise to fans of Assayas, who’s known to spin his tales into enigmatic places.
Audiences are still, after all, working out exactly why Stewart’s character suddenly disappears from “Clouds of Sils Maria,” her previous collaboration with Assayas, in which she also played the assistant to a globally-famous woman. Here, her daily trips to Paris’s most legendary couture houses might make the gig seem exciting to outsiders, but picking up shoes and accessories for the rich and famous no more guarantees fulfillment than death promises eternal peace.
There’s something going bump in the night in Lewis’s old chateau, where Maureen occasionally spends the night in the hopes of making contact. (The new owners would like any ghosts to be busted before they start renovations.) And while the charmingly ramshackle country house seems suitable for a haunting, Paris doesn’t lack for poltergeists either, with strange presences manifesting and anonymous messages turning up on Maureen’s phone.
Assayas proves himself adept at translating modern technology in his storytelling, particularly in a sequence in which Maureen takes her phone off Airplane Mode, only to receive a series of backed-up texts in which her mystery stalker moves closer and closer to her, with the final one showing the stranger to be right outside, right now.
The ghosts are occasionally visible and audible here, but they’re just as likely to be ethereal, and that fits in with Assayas’s storytelling, which often forces us to fill in gaps of unspoken dialogue or unexplained plot for ourselves. It’s a strategy that pays off, however, since it allows the talented Stewart to communicate so much with her expressive eyes and face.
(The shelf life on “Twilight” jokes, incidentally, has long expired: both Stewart and Robert Pattinson are out there giving interesting performances for some of this generation’s most important filmmakers.)
Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“A Bigger Splash”) places Maureen in very specific contexts — the natural light of an autumn afternoon in the country, the bright fluorescents of the Cartier and Chanel boutiques, even the shadows of a boarded-up house in the desert — and somehow always supplies an underscoring of menace and the potential for contact with the departed. The film successfully puts us into Maureen’s sensible shoes, not knowing where or when we’ll make our next otherworldly encounter.
If “Personal Shopper” doesn’t spell everything out for its viewers, it’s no more accommodating to Maureen; she, like us, must use her skills to intuit what’s happening around her and what the future will hold. It’s a captivating swirl for all involved.