Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper.
Photo: CG Cinema
If you’ve seen Personal Shopper, French director Olivier Assayas’s second collaboration with Kristen Stewart, then you know it concedes on the issue of ghosts fairly early. Stewart’s Maureen is desperately trying make contact with the spirit of her twin brother, Lewis, according to a pact they made while they were both alive: If either of them died from the congenital heart defect they shared, the other would send a sign from the afterlife.
When Maureen visits her brother’s old house, she receives a sign from the afterlife all right, in the form of a vomiting she-ghost that bashes around the place like a banshee and seems to mean all kinds of harm. It’s the first, and most effective, of Personal Shopper’s horror-movie jolts, and it primes the pump for the film to delve fully into the genre playbook. The fact that it doesn’t choose to do this, and instead pursues a different path entirely, is one of its most rewarding qualities, and it culminates in a real Gordian knot of an ending: The harder you pull at it, the tighter it seems to become. But if we track back through the undulations of Personal Shopper, a theme begins to present itself, and in that light, the ending starts to make sense.
Maureen’s encounter with the ghost in the house is one of two foundational experiences she has in the film’s first act. The second is a trip to the apartment of Kyra, the model for whom she works as a personal shopper, where she finally finds her elusive boss at home. But while she negotiates a dilemma involving gorillas and a photo shoot, Maureen talks to Kyra’s lover in the living room, a German named Ingo. Ingo tells her that Kyra plans to leave him, and that he doesn’t intend to let that happen, at the same time showing a heightened interest in Maureen.
These two experiences — the ghost in the house, and the spurned lover in the living room — are the two threads Maureen takes with her into the rest of the film. She continues to try to make contact with Lewis’s spirit, watching movies about mediums and reading about the subject; meanwhile, someone, or something, starts sending her increasingly menacing texts from an unknown number. At first, Maureen thinks the texts might be from Lewis, but they gradually shift into some pretty weird shit for your twin brother to say to you, ghost or not.
As the messages become more prurient and provocative, trying to urge Maureen to indulge in her forbidden fantasy of wearing her boss’s clothes — and further diluting her own identity, which has already been besieged by the loss of Lewis — it starts to seem likely that the texts are from Ingo, since they have a distinct male menace. (Anyone who’s been on Tinder after midnight can relate.) But they still possess a mysterious power, an omniscience that suggests something greater, and the notion that the texter might be a ghost never quite disappears. Regardless of which it is, those two possibilities, man and ghost, seeker and sought, bleed together, until it becomes unclear whether Maureen’s in the middle of some sort of psychosexual intrigue or a genuine interaction with the afterlife.
The story comes to a boil when Maureen walks in on the murdered body of Kyra and a distinctly ghostlike presence, reminiscent of the haunted house, banging and flashing down the hallway. Here the film reaches a crossroads. It can either (a) become a horror movie, unleashing a killer ghost that moves from victim to victim, or (b) become a thriller, in which Maureen and Ingo, or some as-yet-unidentified third party, have it out. But true to its spirit, Personal Shopper chooses the middle ground again. Maureen follows the messages’ instruction to go to a specific hotel room; she finds nothing and leaves immediately. After she goes, Assayas uses his camera to suggest a ghost following the same path, the doors opening for nothing, no one moving through his shot. Afterward, we see Ingo enter and exit the hotel room. The cops show up, then he gets in a shootout in front of the building. The problem’s solved: Ingo’s the killer as well as the stalker, and Maureen’s apparently free.
Except, of course, it isn’t that simple. As Maureen visits her brother’s surviving partner, who has taken up with a new man, we see, in a chilling shot, a male specter, presumably Lewis, hovering in the background. It drops a glass on the floor, which shatters like a shot; Maureen cleans it up, no wiser. Then Maureen travels to Oman to visit her sort-of boyfriend, and finds there a ghost, communicating with her in the manner of the spirits who talked to Victor Hugo, with simple knocks. She asks the ghost if it’s Lewis, and it seems to say it is. Then she asks it if it’s at peace, and it won’t say yes. Then she asks if it means harm, and again, its answer is ambiguous. Then she asks if it’s coming from her, and again, it seems to say yes. Then the movie ends.
So, what happened? Was Maureen imagining the ghosts the whole time? Or is she dead, Sixth Sense–style, and the whole thing’s been skewed by her deadness? The second possibility seems easiest to banish: People have interacted with her constantly throughout the film. The first possibility also doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny: The ghosts leave marks on the wall that would be impossible for Maureen to make, marks that other people also confirm; same with the dropped glass. And the movie’s whole vibe, which remains open to the reality of ghosts and the concept of mediums, doesn’t suggest that it would all just be a magic trick.
But in keeping with the ambiguity that’s characterized the movie so far, a third idea suggests itself, a middle way. It’s clear that the ghosts that have plagued Maureen are real. It’s also clear that she’s been grieving, ripped apart by the loss of her twin brother, her counterpart in the world. The ending indicates that these ghosts, and Maureen’s interactions with them, have been influenced, informed, and even manifested by her own grief. They’re real, but they’re also her; there’s a connection.
All of the antagonism that she’s faced throughout the film, then, including Ingo’s stalking, is commingled into a sort of post-Lewis trauma, one that exploits and inhabits her fractured identity, a metaphorical expression of ultimate grief made literal. Whether brought on by ghost or man, these opponents have provided a means through which Maureen can funnel her trauma, trying to reach Lewis on the other side. But the ending of Personal Shopper seems to say that, instead, Maureen’s best chance of coming to peace with her brother’s death would be to go inward, addressing her own suffering spirit.