An award-winner at Cannes last year, Personal Shopper has turned into an excuse for many film critics to re-assess Kristen Stewart and say, “Wow, she can really act!” To which I say, “Where have you all been? I was saying the same thing eight years ago.” However, don’t let my petty sense of vindication obscure this French-made film’s achievements. This highly unusual work is a spellbinding meditation on grief and loss, Stewart’s performance in it is nothing short of astonishing, and you can see it all when it opens this weekend at AMC Grapevine Mills or on the weekend of April 21 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, who indeed works as a personal shopper, buying groceries and helping choose outfits and accessories for a Parisian-based supermodel (Nora von Waldstätten) whom she rarely ever sees in the flesh. Maureen hates the job, but she’s determined to stay in Paris until she receives a signal from her twin brother, who died three months before from the same congenital heart defect that Maureen has. She and the brother both believed in communication with the spirit world, and we first see her sitting alone in his house with all the lights off, listening for strange noises. When she hears one, she walks toward it, saying, “Lewis, is that you?”
Is it? You’ll spend much time during this movie asking yourself questions like that. Is Lewis actually trying to contact Maureen from the other side? Has she awakened an evil spirit that’s not his? Or is she simply losing her mind? Somehow, this supernatural guessing game coexists easily with Maureen’s travels in the world of high fashion as a worker bee and a murder case that Maureen becomes a suspect in. Writer-director Olivier Assayas takes to this mixture of genres with his typical gusto, going so far as to include a sequence that parodies cheesy 1960s French TV movies (one of which Maureen watches looking for insight into spiritualism). If you just want to gawk at the haute-couture outfits, he’ll gladly indulge you, especially in a scene when Maureen picks up some expensive jewelry at Cartier. If you’re looking for something resembling a conventional horror movie, you might be disappointed, but though Assayas isn’t a filmmaker who often delves into the supernatural, he nevertheless seems quite comfortable depicting the will-o’-the-wisp-like spirit in Lewis’ house and two great scenes late in the film when something contacts Maureen. We’ve gotten so used to seeing ghosts in movies that we’re surprised to find one that feels so uncannily like an intruder from another plane of existence.
The setup places a great burden on Stewart, who effectively plays many of her scenes alone and at one point even has to walk through that haunted house ranting at empty air. A scene like that will make many actors look bad, but Stewart pulls it off effortlessly. Frequently looking so drawn and haggard that she might disappear like her character in Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart shows the toll of grief on Maureen and her desperate desire for closure. The actress’ trademark nervous intensity serves the role well, especially in one scene on a train when Maureen breaks down in the face of a series of vaguely threatening text messages that may or may not be from Lewis. The movie climaxes with Maureen meeting her sister-in-law’s new boyfriend (Anders Danielsen Lie) in a backyard garden, and as she finds a degree of comfort from this relative stranger, Stewart makes the scene deeply moving.
Kristen Stewart is having the career that Hilary Swank was supposed to have. You remember how Swank grabbed us all by the scruff of the neck in 1999 with Boys Don’t Cry, right? She seemed to herald a new kind of leading lady who would burst all our conventional notions of feminine charm and take them into a sexually fluid realm. It didn’t play out that way, largely because Swank turned out to have terrible taste in roles. (It’s harsh to call a two-time Oscar winner’s career a disappointment, but that is what Swank’s has been.)
Stewart has the same sort of androgynous beauty, which along with her offscreen bisexuality makes her a polymorphous object of desire for viewers of all orientations. After some extremely public growing pains, she finally seems to have grown comfortable with herself and everything that makes her different from other leading ladies. She recently hosted Saturday Night Live to promote Personal Shopper, and while everyone was talking about her accidentally saying the word “fuck” in her monologue, I found her response to that instructive, when she said, “I’m never coming back.” Granted, the ability to ad-lib when things go wrong is something that tends to accrue to showbiz professionals (and Stewart was acting before the turn of the millennium), and if, say, Jennifer Lawrence done the same thing, it would’ve felt like business as usual. Coming from Stewart, the awareness of her situation and the ability to get a laugh from it felt like a new step.
Stewart’s sexuality is only part of the reason why Hollywood hasn’t figured out what to do with her — after all, Ruby Rose is more butch than you and me put together, and the studios have already pigeonholed her: Give her a gun, stick her in an action flick, and it’s good. Stewart’s restless intellect and impatience with the blockbuster franchises (which, after all, she’s done already) make her a harder case. Fortunately, she’s demonstrating a better grasp of her own best usage than those studio executives. She has worked for established great directors like Ang Lee and Woody Allen, but more often she’s drawn to low-budget filmmakers who have done fascinating work in the past like Kelly Reichardt or Assayas. Choosing good roles is half the battle, but she has brought her bristle to such different parts as a frazzled small-town lawyer in Certain Women to a lonely Texas antiwar activist in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to an ethically conflicted U.S. Marine in Camp X-Ray. She improved all those films, some of them greatly, and they also showed her willingness to take supporting or ensemble parts rather than only look for star vehicles.
Personal Shopper is a deeply ambiguous movie, right down to its troubling final touch, so it needs a star whose appeal lies in her ambiguity. Kristen Stewart is forging a career path that no one else has forged before, and here and elsewhere, she’s laying waste while she does it. Watching her do it is as thrilling as anything the movies have to offer right now.
Starring Kristen Stewart. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Rated R.