If there’s one sub-genre that’s been done to death in modern horror movies, it’s paranormal/possession. And yet, with wispy CGI phantoms, a killer, modern location and a fearless central performance from Kristen Stewart, French auteur Olivier Assayas manages to make it seem fresh, new and, crucially, seriously spooky once more.
The setting is Paris, where Maureen (an exhausted-looking Stewart) is lolling around, making ends meet as the personal shopper to a demanding, barely-glimpsed celeb while simultaneously waiting on her recently-deceased twin brother to send her a message from the afterlife. If that premise sounds a bit clunky, Assayas’s steady hand ensures Personal Shopper always feels real.
Most of the credit for selling a somewhat bizarre story should go to Stewart, whose assured performance as the lead (she’s onscreen for almost the entire run-time, often shot in close-up) grounds the story. Her tortured, lonely protagonist is instantly empathetic, whether she’s trying to resist trying on her client’s fancy clothes or attempting to contact the beyond.
Personal Shopper works both as a horror and a showcase for the actor-director partnership that began with Clouds Of Sils Maria, for which Stewart became the first American woman to win a César award (essentially a French Oscar). Their combined talents are evident throughout, her “punk rock” approach to acting (his description) matching his no-nonsense directing style.
But more than that, this is just a properly scary fright flick. Although Maureen starts the movie by tip-toeing around a big, spooky old house, technology plays a major role in establishing the tension here. Particularly when Maureen is plagued by text messages from an anonymous person – or entity? – and they stack up ruthlessly after she switches off Airplane Mode on her iPhone.
In these scenes, Stewart acts literally from her fingers right down to her toes, her thumbs flitting about furiously as she struggles to connect with what might be a paranormal presence. In less capable, er, hands these sequences could easily fall flat and become repetitive but Stewart sells us on Maureen’s escalating fears as the “typing” dots scroll slowly, terrifyingly by.
Although it seems like a crass comparison, Personal Shopper has much in common with Internet horrors such as Unfriended and The Den. Assayas cleverly uses Maureen’s only real connection to the outside world, her iPhone, against her in the most invasive manner. The real-world consequences are equally horrifying, too, as the tension ramps all the way up.
This is one of several dark, female-fronted movies on the slate for 2017 so it’s easy to imagine Personal Shopper getting lost in the fray with the likes of Elle jostling for attention. But aside from being yet another argument in favour of Kristen Stewart’s by now undeniable acting skills, and a showcase for Olivier Assayas as one to watch in horror, it’s just a great spooky movie all round.
It’s surprising, too, in a world of Conjurings, Insidiouses and more Paranormal Activities than anyone has the patience to get through (not to mention also-rans like last year’s instantly forgettable The Darkness and The Other Side Of The Door), that a quiet, cerebral, stubbornly slow-burn movie, which doesn’t boast the best VFX or even any jump scares, should be so effective.
But Personal Shopper isn’t interested in playing by the rules. It forces us to pay attention. Thankfully, as horror fans, we already know the old adage is true; when it comes to spooky stories, less is more.