Kristen Stewart has a gripping and anxious presence in this unsettling and somewhat unsatisfying thriller from writer-director Olivier Assayas. She plays Maureen, a young woman marooned in self-imposed isolation in Paris after the death of her brother Lewis. An individual attuned to the spiritual world, Maureen is attempting to contact her departed brother, searching for certainty that he is at rest. Meanwhile she holds down a demeaning yet privileged job as a personal shopper to Kyra, a spoiled and delusional celebrity.
This is a film of diverse tones – a kaleidoscope which is often dazzling and occasionally draining. We are frequently in taut suspense, as when Maureen frantically tries to locate her brother’s spirit in their large and stereotypically eery mansion – a traditional and knowing evocation of classic ghost tales. However, Assayas is also at pains to bring the fear into the modern world, with extensive use of Maureen’s smartphone as a narrative device. In a bravura moment of ingenuity, he has stacked up messages appear in turn after airplane mode is disabled; for the most part however, extended conversations by text are unfortunately dull – uncinematic in a manner that seems deliberate, yet is nonetheless trying.
Other sequences veer into parodic dialogue – Kyra’s furious distress over the fate of her stake in a gorilla conservation project, and her lover’s straightfaced assessment of their relationship are enjoyable distractions. However, some of the key story beats borrow the same off-key tone, to deliver important discussions and revelations. While it further develops Assayas’s miasmic tone, the unavoidable observation is that people simply don’t talk in the manner Assayas has written them, even if they are associate members of a fraternity of mediums.
Stewart’s performance, which dominates the film, is impressively committed – she is hesitant and stuttering, noticeably more composed in her text conversations than in reality, a situation with which many must empathise. A plot that is ultimately a framing device and little more is carried by her barely-holding-it-together angst. Maureen has a latent fascination for the luxurious clothes she picks up for Kyra, and when prompted, transgresses the bounds of her employment, slipping into another identity via these trappings of affluence and wealth. Her obsession is off-putting, and the Assayas gives hints that her mental stability is not ideal – hardly a surprise given how far left of field her views on mortality are. She has a feel about her of the governess from Hardy’s The Turn of the Screw, an unreliable narrator for the ages.
The unreality of the picture, then, is a major strength as well as perhaps its only weakness. If one can overlook or overcome the odd notes, or accept them as a deliberate undermining of any sense of normality, there is an interesting and engaging psychological thriller playing with expectations here – with perhaps the odd strand of chaff.