There are ghosts in Personal Shopper, and Kristen Stewart is one of them.
In her second film with director Olivier Assayas, after Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart plays Maureen, the personal shopper to a high-profile celebrity in Paris. Maureen has an eye for fashion, but her real interest is in spiritualism. Indeed, she’s a medium, and in the movie’s opening scene we watch her alone in a vast mansion at night, where she’s trying to make contact with a presence she feels but hasn’t been able to fully encounter.
As an actor, Stewart can be something of an apparition herself. She’s elusive and ephemeral, and that hard-to-pin-down quality has led some to claim that she’s a bad actress. Others argue otherwise, including those who gave her the equivalent of the French Oscar for Clouds of Sils Maria. My experience of her work is something in between: I recognize that she’s a master of reticence, but perhaps because of that she seems limited when it comes to conveying a genuine connection between two people.
The first time I saw her onscreen—in David Fincher’s Panic Room—she played a character who was literally withdrawn: a diabetic tween hiding with her mother in a safe room during a home invasion. The posture she necessarily adopted there—curled up, leaning back, turning away—would go on to be her defining quality, even in the supposedly swoony Twilight series. As breathy as those films got, there was always a stiffness to Stewart’s romantic scenes. When her Bella Swan begs the vampire Edward to bite her, you get the sense it’s not him she’s after, but his doomed, lonely lifestyle.
In Personal Shopper, Stewart plays another loner, and she excels at it. Wandering through that house—a gorgeously forlorn estate where doors lead to more doors, all of which have windows whose reflections multiply the dimensions at play—she’s captivating, because we get the sense we’re watching someone who would rather not be seen. (Assayas emphasizes this by frequently leaving her face in shadow.) Stewart handles many of the conversation scenes similarly, speaking curtly and quickly—so quickly she often stammers—as if she can’t wait to be done talking to the person at hand. This, by extension, means she’d rather not be talking to us in the audience, which is why some viewers find her alienating.
Stewart is a master of reticence.
In Personal Shopper, she’s at her best when she’s alone on the screen. There is the furtiveness of that opening scene, but also the brazenness of a later one, in which she defies her client’s orders and tries on her high-fashion dresses when she’s not home. Given that Maureen normally wears a nondescript sweater, this is quite a transformation, one communicated not only in the change of clothing but also in the way Stewart carries herself. (The shoulders lose their hunch; her gaze into the mirror becomes direct.) This is Maureen’s declaration of independence, though notably it’s a statement she can only make when she’s alone.
If such scenes exemplify Stewart at her best, Personal Shopper also includes a significant one that fails to serve her unique talent. In another scene set in her client’s apartment, she has a long conversation with her client’s boyfriend (Lars Eidinger) that contradicts both Stewart the performer and Maureen the character. He peppers her with personal questions—about her career, her interest in spiritualism, and her family—all of which she immediately answers with unusual candor. The problem isn’t only that the Maureen we’ve come to know wouldn’t open up so quickly, especially to a new acquaintance, it’s also that Stewart—the queen of reserve—isn’t able to sell such sudden candor.
This scene also points to an exposition issue that bedevils Personal Shopper. Assayas, who wrote the screenplay, has taken on a lot here; in addition to the spiritualist elements, this is a movie that involves family dynamics, medical history, and a murder. Necessary information is doled out in that lengthy, awkward Q&A session between Stewart and Eidinger, as well as in multiple instances of Maureen discovering things while watching YouTube videos. Add an extended sequence in which she texts back and forth with an anonymous caller, and Personal Shopper does an awful lot of inert information-dispensing for what could be considered a thriller.
Of course, this is the kind of movie that could also be so much more than that, depending on how moved you are to engage with it. Personal Shopper is a meditation on identity—the one we hold, the one we project, and the one we desire. It’s a rumination on the afterlife—not only if it exists, but what we want from those who have passed over. It’s a portrait of loneliness—and how desperate we can be to make human connection. And as a showcase for Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper reveals what’s simultaneously so alluring and frustrating about her performances. She’s the movie star we can never quite “have,” because her true talent is keeping us at a distance.