With glittering surfaces and a modernist aesthetic where haute couture coexists with centuries of rich history, Paris is an ideal setting for a ghost story.
There’s a feeling on its streets and in its cafes, a blending of the old world and the new, that evokes a sort of ethereal magic that’s unique to the City of Light.
It provides the essence of “Personal Shopper,” a new film from writer-director Olivier Assayas, a native of the city, that stars Kristen Stewart in a performance that further confirms her status as one of the most adventurous and compelling actors working in movies today.
This is a picture that operates in loneliness and despair rather than conventional frights, as Stewart’s Maureen Cartwright, a personal shopper for an A-list celebrity who is never actually in town, waits for a sign from her dead twin brother.
Assayas surrounds his star with barren, cold spaces, tracks her as she rides her scooter through the streets on a journey to nowhere in particular, and painstakingly observes as she succumbs to a state of helplessness, desperately searching for some sort of, well, something from the afterlife.
Stewart commands the screen with great force; it’s a performance beset with a tremendous and unsettling anxiety, an extended self-mutilation in which the violence is entirely psychological. She spends most of the movie alone, or playing off a prolonged texting conversation with a mysterious figure, and her every movement suggests a state of perpetual anguish. And yet, she’s so compelling suspended in this purgatory that you feel as if you could watch her for hours.
The desperation to be someone else; the desire to hang onto the past and hold it close against the inexorable march of time; these are among the most defining themes of all human existence. That Assayas and Stewart have translated them to a fashionable Paris setting and created a horror movie that’s both scary and genuinely affecting in doing so, stands as nothing short of a miracle.