There’s a certain perverse genius to unveiling a ghost movie at Cannes that relies on the audience to deliver the “boos” as the final credits roll, although one doubts that’s quite what Olivier Assayas was going for with his peculiar “Personal Shopper.” The wildly unconventional study of a young American woman going through a spiritual crisis — in more ways than one — this reunion between Kristen Stewart and the director who gave her one of her best-ever roles in 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a broken, but never boring mix of spine-tingling horror story, dreary workplace drama and elliptical identity search, likely to go down as one of the most divisive films of Stewart’s career.
Apart from a handful of ultra-violent slasher movies (such as “High Tension” and “Them”), contemporary French cinema seldom ventures into the realm of horror. Not that ultra-cinema-savvy critic-turned-helmer Assayas seems particularly worried about such traditions. “Personal Shopper” bears about as much in common with any other ghost movie you may have seen as the director’s now-20-year-old “Irma Vep” does classic vampire movies (which was sort of the point, centering on a remake of silent classic “Les Vampires”). Assayas’ flip dismissal of basic genre-movie standards will surely confuse younger viewers seeking relatively conventional thrills, especially those who tune in because they heard the “Twilight” star takes her top off (although that particular selling point didn’t exactly work for “On the Road” either). For more discerning grown-ups, however, there’s certainly enough here to haunt — often in ways that have more to do with subtext and psychology than the computer-generated ghost that surfaces in the movie’s scarier scenes.
At first glance, Stewart’s character, Maureen Cartwright, seems to be cut from the same cloth as the celebrity assistant she played in “Sils Maria.” In that film, part of the fun was getting to watch one of Hollywood’s most famous young stars play-acting the stress of having to juggle menial chores for her demanding diva boss. Still, while Maureen belongs to the same system of disposable satellites drawn into the orbit of needy tabloid idols, her job couldn’t be more different. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Paris with a better gig as we watch Maureen ride her motorcycle from one haute couture designer’s atelier to the next, picking out gowns for single-name star Kyra to wear — the only rule being that she’s not allowed to try them on herself. While being a personal shopper offers little in the way of personal satisfaction, the work is so cushy that it actually leaves time for Maureen to moonlight as a medium, which is where things tend to get really weird.
In the opening scene, Maureen arrives at a big empty mansion to hold a séance, and though she doesn’t spot the menacing specter hovering in the corner of the living room, Assayas ensures that we do. It will take some time before the movie gets around to revealing what Maureen was doing in that house — although it never bothers to explain what she, an American, is doing in Paris. Turns out, her twin brother, Lewis, also lived in France. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he died in France, which hasn’t been an easy thing for Maureen to accept. They both had weak hearts, and the deal was, whoever died first would send the other a sign from the other side, so she — and we — spend the movie waiting for just such a message. And because Assayas has already indicated that ghosts are not only real, but potentially malevolent, that creates real suspense.
The message arrives, as messages tend to do, via cell phone during an already harried go-fer run to London. Considering that Maureen will spend the better part of 20 minutes texting with an unknown (and potentially undead) caller, it’s kind of a clever conceit that she spends the conversation juggling her most glamorous assignment. But it’s also a bummer that Stewart has to act so much of the movie on her lonesome, avoiding calls from her long-distance boyfriend and doing research via YouTube (where she watches videos about abstract painter Hilma af Klimt and French novelist Victor Hugo, who both communed with the beyond). Stewart is a terrific actress, her brittle exterior barely masking whatever tempest she or her characters are battling underneath, and here, the unpredictability of what she may do next is heightened by the fact that there are no rules for what can happen.
Soon, Maureen is taking orders from the mysterious presence on the other end of her cell phone, who starts to feed her lines not that far from those of the postmodern serial killer in “Scream.” (Yes, she likes scary movies.) Whoever it is leaves a key for her to a hotel room, encouraging Maureen to test her phobias, which evidently involve trying on Kyra’s clothes and then masturbating in her boss’s bed. Maureen not-so-secretly despises her boss, though her feelings on this — like those involving her dead brother, or toward the fashion industry in which she’s made so many high-ranking connections — are only partly articulated.
Though the film is told in strictly chronological order, making sense of it feels like trying to reassemble a broken mirror. Losing Lewis really messed up Maureen, and in her meaningless job as a celebrity slave, she’s starting to lose herself as well. She could quit, though Assayas comes up with a far more surprising way to liberate Maureen of her employment duties, whisking her away to faraway Oman, for a scene that’s as disembodied from the rest of the film as the Iraq-set opening of “The Exorcist” feels from all the reality-grounded horror that follows. (Stewart’s first of two topless scenes, in which she goes in for a heart sonogram, could be a nod to the far-grimmer carotid angiography Regan endures in that film.) Between this and “Sils Maria,” Stewart has suffered enough for imaginary stars, we can only hope she goes easy on her own assistants.