Is “Personal Shopper” a ghost story? Well, it starts in a creepy, empty house where Maureen (Kristen Stewart) — a woman who makes a living choosing clothes she cannot afford and is not allowed to wear — is trying to make contact with her dead twin brother. And then she starts getting text messages that might be from said brother. And then other otherworldly things start happening. But is it a ghost story? Even writer-director Olivier Assayas doesn’t sound sure.
“It’s really about coming of age,” Assayas says of his film, which opens locally Friday. Still, the French filmmaker deliberately leaned on elements of horror and suspense movies not just to amp up the action, but to forge a connection between the film and the viewer.
“What you define as genre elements, to me they are emotions,” says Assayas, who also directed Stewart in 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria.” So when Maureen unexpectedly stumbles upon a murder scene, Assayas shoots the discovery the way it would be seen in a horror film, giving the audience a bit of a jump scare. When Maureen is trying — possibly successfully — to reach her brother, “Personal Shopper” looks, feels and sounds like any movie about a spectral presence.
“To me, having the audience connect with the physical emotion of the character, genre elements are the way to do it,” Assayas says. “They create this physical tension, anxiety, whatever, and that’s what I need in those moments.”
Assayas says it’s “reductive” to describe “Personal Shopper” as a ghost story. And yet he admits “it would be very difficult to sum it up in a different way.” To him, it all comes down to perception.
“It maybe depends on what reality you put on the word ‘ghost,’ ” he says. “I mean, ghost can be a theme park, ghost train kind of stuff, but it can also mean the relationship we have with our own ghosts, with the departed we love who somehow keep living through us. That’s the way I mean ‘ghosts,’ and that’s why I’m OK with defining ‘Personal Shopper’ as a ghost story. It just depends on who is the ghost.”