If you can shed any Twilight-related biases and strip away the post-Twilight tabloid nonsense, I firmly believe you will eventually arrive at an inevitable conclusion: Kristen Stewart is a damn good actor.
She’s a gifted naturalist, working at her best when the roles she chooses are stripped of bombast and allowed plenty of room to breathe in the space of the story. She’s a master of the psychological gesture and a deft hand at guiding an unbelievable scenario toward an emotional reality. In the right film, she can—like Rooney Mara and Emma Stone, two fellow bright stars of her generation—make it look easy.
As if to prove it, she picked a film in which she is the only main character, spends many of her scenes alone and passes huge swaths of the runtime in silence. It’s a film that requires a tremendous performance to work, not just because of the central role, but because the story commands the audience to follow the star through a series of increasingly complex psychological leaps. In the end, the storytelling acrobatics of Personal Shopper mostly deliver, and they get there because of Stewart.
Stewart is Maureen, a personal shopper who hates her boring days in Paris picking out clothes for the non-specific celebrity character who employs her. Maureen won’t leave the city because she’s waiting for a sign from her twin brother, who died three months earlier. She has the ability to detect “presences,” and calls herself a medium, though she’s not entiely sure ghosts are real. She had made a pact with her brother, though, that she would wait for a sign from him in the afterlife if he died before her, and so she waits, depriving herself of a vacation or even simpler pleasures like sneaking a try-on of some of the high fashion she brings home to her client. Then, when a presence finally does make itself known, it sets in motion a taut chain of events that will make Maureen question everything she thought she believed about ghosts, death and her own sense of what it’s like to really feel alive.
I don’t want to tell you any more than that, because Personal Shopper is the kind of film that can reward careful viewers who go in without any of the twist spoiled for them. When I say twists, I don’t mean it in an uncanny, M. Night Shyamalan What a twist! way, but it’s best to let this film unfold like a nocturnal flower, letting each lovely dark petal fall open until you get the whole sensual blossom laid out before you.
Director Olivier Assayas creates that kind of storytelling environment by never telegraphing his intentions, letting the film meander across genres as needed, charting new metaphorical paths to achieve the very secific tonal and thematic vision at work here. His camera placement is elegant and deliberate without being flashy, emphasizing mood and perfrmance over supernatural pop, and his script and staging work together to create something that makes the viewer want to lean forward and notice everything. Our first moments with Stewart involve her walking alone in an empty house, listening and looking, and we don’t yet know for what. It’s a simple hook, but a well-executed one, and then Assayas does something that guarantees we will follow him around every turn in the labyrinth he’s building: He delivers the ghost goods.
While much of the film walks a line between the metaphorical and the literal when it comes to the supernatural, there are ghosts in Personal Shopper, and they work. The film features one of the most genuinely unsettling depictions of a ghost encounter I’ve ever seen, and it also doesn’t leave us waiting long for creepy things to start happening. This buys Assayas a lot of good faith from his audience, and allows him to chart all the metaphorical territory he wants. If there’s a major flaw in Personal Shopper, it’s that it’s a bit too wrapped up in the pretensions of its ghost metaphors and its meditation on loneliness as a kind of mystical state that can help us reveal who we really are. I dont mind that so much, though, because the pretension is far outpaced by ambition, and when it comes time to get spooky, Assayas offers moments that will stick in your head well beyond the film’s runtime.
The reality of contemporary filmmaking is that characters, especially young ones, are apt to spend huge chunks of time looking at their phones. Maureen’s like that too, but in Stewart’s hands that phone becomes both a talisman during her isolation and an instrument for some really great thriller moments. The long and loving examination of loneliness in the film also means Maureen spends a lot of time mumbling or talking to no one, but she owns the moments, creating a genuine emotional arc that you can see developing from scene to scene and, in some inspired moments, from second to second. Some actors are a joy when you just get to spend a little while watchng them think, and though I might not have known it until seeing ths performance, Kristen Stewart is one of those actors. She takes this quiet, withdrawn woman and puts real life behind her eyes, and that’s the only way the most intimate moments of this film work.
Personal Shopper is a gorgeous little thriller anchored by a magnificent performer, and it will crawl pleasantly under your skin.