PERSONAL SHOPPER * * *
Starring Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie and Ty Olwin. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas.
“LOOOOK AT HER!” the excitable online personality known as LexG used to say about Kristen Stewart back in the Twilight era, so enchanted was he by her tomboyish diffidence. As usual the Lexman was ahead of us all, but conventional wisdom finally caught up and I doubt you’d raise too many eyebrows these days if you called Stewart the best actress of her generation – or at least the most captivating.
Filmmaker Olivier Assayas certainly seems to agree. After directing her to a Cesar award (Stewart’s the only American actress ever to win one, so suck it Meryl) for 2014’s Clouds Of Sils Maria, he’s followed that profound, perplexing two-hander up with what’s basically a one-woman-show. I suppose that in synopsis Personal Shopper is a ghost story about grief and acceptance, but on a more visceral, cinematic level this is really KStew Mesmerizes While Performing Mundane Tasks In Europe. It’s a movie about looking at her.
Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, an American expat working in Paris as an assistant to a shrewish supermodel. Still reeling from the recent death of her twin brother from a congenital heart defect (one she shares), Maureen fancies herself a medium and is stuck in an emotional rut waiting for a psychic sign from her sibling in the great beyond. A lot of this supernatural mumbo-jumbo falls pretty flat, to a point where I’m half-convinced Stewart’s monotone descriptions of “ectoplasm” and “portals to the spirit world” might be meta-movie geek Assayas’ winking homage to his leading lady’s early misadventures in YA adaptations.
Personal Shopper picks up steam when Maureen begins receiving curiously pushy text messages from an unknown number. Is it her semi-estranged boyfriend playing a prank? Perhaps someone else we met earlier in the picture? Could this be her brother finally reaching out? Or maybe it’s somebody with more sinister intentions communicating from the other side.
“Kristen Stewart texts with a ghost” sounds like an unlikely premise for one of the year’s most thrilling suspense sequences, and yet Personal Shopper’s riveting midsection follows Maureen to London and back running errands for her boss while answering these increasingly invasive, anonymous inquiries. Stewart’s brilliance has always been her minimalism, communicating so much with such economy that there’s always a danger of undercutting her co-stars. (Next to Stewart in Still Alice, even fine actors like Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin came off like salt cured Virginia hams.)
It’s her ability to work so small that makes the sequence soar, as we can see Maureen emotionally opening up to this unknown inquisitor while going about her business on a bastard of a commute. This is the first movie I’ve seen that truly gets the contemporary smartphone reality of day-to-day life carrying on while you’re having a whole other conversation in your pocket. Assayas and Stewart are so in sync they’re able to create a Hannibal/Clarice relationship with this character we can’t see while she doesn’t even say so much as a word. And if you think that sounds great, just wait until the Airplane Mode gag.
For a moment or two it seems like there’s going to be a perfectly logical explanation for all of this. But Assayas being Assayas, he can’t help putting some Persona into Personal Shopper. Muddled and unsatisfying as the ending may be, it’s still a film worth watching for what comes before. I mean, look at her.