It’s ironic that the thing most criticized about Kristen Stewart has now become one of her most intriguing attributes. During the Twilight years that might have capsized the career of an actress much less capable than her, critics and even devoted fans of the series routinely made jabs at her apparent inability to emotionally express herself on the screen. The image of her face frozen, her front teeth biting her slim bottom lip, became something of a joke once the inevitable Twilight backlash began to make way. Come 2012, many wondered where the saga’s pretty but seemingly performatively apathetic leading actors would be after the franchise concluded.
Though it’s taken Stewart years to prove that her plodding recurring performance as Bella Swan was a result of bad writing and not a lack of talent, the mere mention of her name still sparks skepticism from those who’ve forgotten to take the time to follow her recent career trajectory. Even I didn’t recognize her as one of the most formidable talents of her generation until watching 2014 high points Camp X-Ray and Clouds of Sils Maria back to back two years ago. I’ve been sold ever since. But I suspect it will take a stunning performance in a mainstream film to persuade the general populace that Stewart really is the movie star film websites have been touting her as for the last few years.
Having made three to four movies a year since 2014, most of them interesting even if lacking in ultimate memorability, Stewart has become a dependable talent, a star made all the more fascinating as an effect of choosing roles not because of their perceived career furthering promises but because of the challenges presented. Suddenly, the cryptic face which led most to make jokes has now become a curiosity, a projector for auteurs and a go-to for quiet character studies.
Personal Shopper, which premiered at Cannes last year to mixed notices and is now going through the motions of a limited release around the United States, is a summation of Stewart’s unprecedented ambitions. Marking her second collaboration with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who directed her in the excellent aforementioned Clouds of Sils Maria, it is both the strangest film of her career and the film which contains her greatest performance. Part character study, part psychological thriller, part ghost story, Personal Shopper is an offbeat entanglement of sometimes riveting, sometimes ponderous, artistic passion which remains watchable because its leading lady is such a tour-de-force.
While watching, I was reminded not of other actresses of the millennial crowd but of James Dean and River Phoenix, captivating male stars who embodied and continue to embody the angst which overwhelms you in your teenage years and in your 20s. Because Dean and Phoenix, in lieu of dying young and essentially becoming immortal since our image of them is forever set in stone, would have excelled in the part played by Stewart in Personal Shopper. Her heroine is greasy, moody, stylish, disaffected, and at a war with herself. The acting seen is not acting acting. Seen is the kind of performing which simply requires us to be engrossed by her face, by what’s happening inside her head. Stewart, of course, has a long career ahead of her. But like Dean in East of Eden (1955) and like Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991), we see the actress in Personal Shopper and cannot stop ourselves from consistently reminding ourselves that this woman is on a track which might lead her to become a worshipped cinematic icon in the years to come.
In the movie, she's Maureen, an American in Paris. Only she’s not in Paris because she’s young, lost, and thinks the city is going to save her from the mundanities of home. She’s in Paris because of the recent death of her twin brother Lewis, who resided in a country home on the city’s fringes before his demise. Both possessors of a rare heart condition and psychic powers, Maureen and Lewis gruesomely promised one another in their youth that whoever died first would give the other a sign to show that they’ve made it to the afterlife. Such a plot point is preposterous. But when it’s written by the self-serious Assayas and carried out by the ardent Stewart, we’re partial to believe what we’re seeing.
Early passages in the film cover Maureen’s many attempts to contact Lewis, all set in his chillingly blackened, dauntingly labyrinthine house. In these moments, we become so bemused by Stewart’s presence that we begin to question if it’s too soon to start making award predictions. The phantasmic prologue eventually comes to be foundational — a physical manifestation of Maureen’s psychological turmoil. What’s at the film’s forefront are her adventures as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), an arrogant, Fashion Week-attending celebrity Maureen despises.
Spending her days traveling to and from high class boutiques from London to France, handling leather pants, slinky dresses, and scobs of jewelry for her high maintenance mistress, Maureen routinely has to refrain from letting her occupational disatisfaction get to her. “I fucking hate it,” she hisses to her boyfriend over Skype. The vapidity of her job is taking time away from her supernatural desires, and the longer she’s held accountable for abominably expensive material things the more she finds herself at a loss. The feelings of emptiness and replaceability that come when you’re a personal shopper are digging into her already vulnerable psyche.
Maureen starts edging closer to her breaking point, then, when she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number. Though initially certain that it’s Lewis somehow contacting her from beyond the grave, she soon reaches the epiphany that the person on the other end is far more sinister, prodding her insecurities and her self-doubt until things take a turn for the deadly.
Read the synopsis and it’s abundantly clear that Personal Shopper is a peculiar, profoundly idiosyncratic film with steep chances of either being moronic or inspired. While it sometimes flirts with absurdity, inspiration is more its forte, and Assayas somehow adjoins our fixation with Stewart and his genre-hopping, woefully wonky ideas to create something singular.
It doesn’t always work, from the way it goes minutes only spotlighting text conversations between Maureen and the ghoulish figure determined to mess with her head, to the pretentious, gratuitous finale, which is preceded by a more subtly terrifying scene which should have acted as the conclusion instead.
But Stewart keeps Assayas’ disparately successful jumble of provocations arousing. In their previous partnership, Clouds of Sils Maria, she played a puzzle of a young woman made to rile the protagonist up, to inflame the latter’s emotional sensitivity. But in Personal Shopper, she is a chain-smoking 27-year-old who looks just as tortured as she feels, her eyes eternally hooded, her hair mussed and her clothes relatively unchanging. She always seems to be on the verge of tears.
It’s a brilliant performance, exceptionally emotional and often impressively physical. But Assayas – who seems to have decided that Stewart is his newest muse – enhances it in the most thoughtful of ways.
In the scenes wherein she’s playing a quasi-ghostbuster, she’s given opportunity to show off her remarkable facial and bodily aptitude, able to convey even the most understated of an emotion with the smallest of a twitch. In the scenes wherein she’s playing opposite another actor, her diction is clipped, communicating the truth that Maureen is someone who spends too much time in her head and, in response, cannot so much make a statement without stuttering helplessly in the process. Even in the frequently tedious sequences which mostly circle around Maureen shakily answering text messages, Stewart finds a notable contrast between Maureen when she’s internally hurting versus Maureen when she’s externally showing signs of distress.
Personal Shopper never reaches the unfathomable highs set by Clouds of Sils Maria, but what it lacks in total enthrallment is made up for by applaudable aspiration and, predictably, Stewart’s career-best performance. We leave the theater with a wisp of enigma following us out the door, our minds fuzzy and our souls haunted. One cannot easily pinpoint the kind of film Personal Shopper is, or what messages it’s trying to shout. But that doesn’t stop it from crawling under our skin and making a home there. This is one of the more striking films of the year, undoubtedly capable of staying with audiences and critics long enough to give it a place among the best of 2017 come December. A-