By Richard von Busack
Very sexy and very scary, Personal Shopper is Oliver Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria, the film that proved that a sharp and sensitive director could find virtue in Kristen Stewart’s air of neutrality. Assayas makes a display of this actress’s humid eyes, firmly set mouth and smooth physique, but the ghost story isn’t all about her vulnerability—it follows a few sidebars about the parapsychological activities of Victor Hugo, for instance, to get us ready for the point when Assayas starts playing the xylophone on the viewer’s spinal cord.
Maureen Cartwright (Stewart) is a personal shopper for a very mean and extremely wealthy Parisienne. Cartwright has an avocation—she’s a medium and spends a night searching for ghosts in an empty house where her twin brother, Lewis, died; her heart, like his, may be a time bomb ready to stop without warning. He’d always promised to send a message back to the world of the living. The film doesn’t cheat: A ghost of swirling, smoke-like ectoplasm reveals itself to Cartwright early in the film. Later, she gets texts from some mysterious, omniscient being.
There are three sound people credited here, and you’ll see why. The soundscape goes beyond the eclectic mix of the score, including Marlene Dietrich’s song about carpentry, but really about death as the great leveler of the world’s classes. As in David Lynch’s films, the disturbing sound is more chilling than the disturbing image. The thump of a ghost answering questions has a wetness and echo to it, like the sound of rolling thunder diminishing. The dull, irritating buzz of a cell phone carrying threatening anonymous messages—perhaps from the hereafter—gives brand new punch to the old “the calls are coming from inside the house!” gimmick.