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'Personal Shopper' is the movie that really gets Kristen Stewart

The actress' second film with Olivier Assayas ("Clouds of Sils Maria") is a ghost movie that's really a study of its star.
Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart goes ghost hunting in "Personal Shopper," the actress' second filmIFC Films

‘Personal Shopper’
Director:
Olivier Assayas
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

If nothing else — and it has much else to recommend — “Personal Shopper” may be the ideal Kristen Stewart movie. That’s not to say it’s the best, but it is the one that most understands what makes her unique. When we talk about actors (and do it badly more often than not), we talk about how they recited their lines, how they were so emotional or, the other extreme, so subtle, how they made us believe they were someone else. Stewart isn’t one of those actors. She’s at her finest when she’s just being. You don’t give her lengthy monologues or sparkling dialogue; she’ll only mumble through them. The camera loves her, so you simply train it on her face and watch as it tells you what words cannot.

“Personal Shopper” may technically be a ghost movie — a French, arty ghost movie — but it’s really one of those movies where filmmaker and star are joined at the hip, deserving of equal authorship. (Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” with Isabelle Huppert, is another.) Reuniting with her “Clouds of Sils Maria” director Olivier Assayas, Stewart plays Maureen, an ex-pat who’s arrived in Paris in the wake of her twin brother’s death. He was a medium, and she’s trying to be one, too, in the hopes of making contact with his spirit. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about her connecting with a seemingly malevolent one instead, who vomits ectoplasm on her face and later trolls her over text messages.

Less adventurous Twi-hards may see “Personal Shopper” as a fumbled embarrassment — KStew’s own “I Know Who Killed Me.” But there’s far more to it than attempted chills. Over half of the running time concerns, well, a personal shopper. Maureen is one of those modern young people with a patchwork existence, eking by on odd jobs in a new, funkier economy. Her main gig involves bopping around Paris — and occasionally Eurostar-ing it to London — to pick up high-end wares for a nightmare of a workaholic (Nora von Waldstatten), fuming that she has to waste time on something she hates.

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Amusingly, it's these scenes that are better than our hero's real love, ghost hunting. Like Stewart, Maureen prefers casual wear: faded sweaters, torn jeans, black polo shirts. Also like Stewart, our hero repeatedly finds herself forced to slip into name duds. “I feel ridiculous. It’s not me,” Maureen says when staring at herself in her employer’s new sheer black get-up. Except she clearly gets a secret thrill from being not her, from going from normcore to glamorous.

As in “Sils Maria,” Assayas plays with his star’s mega-celebrity in ways both couldn’t-resist cheeky and insightful. Throughout “Personal Shopper,” Kristen Stewart isn’t Kristen Stewart, mobbed by screaming fans and hounded by paparazzi. She’s invisible. She drives her Peugot around bustling streets, she storms through train stations, she sits, semi-acknowledged, in richie clothing stores. Movies project our greatest desires, and in “Personal Shopper” Kristen Stewart gets to be a nobody.

Much as “Personal Shopper” is a movie about Kristen Stewart, it’s also definitely a film by Olivier Assayas. Kent Jones once wrotethat his movies, including "Irma Vep" and "Carlos," present “the blur of existence.” You can see that both in the way he captures life as it’s lived, by characters always on the move, and in how it blurs all manner of boundaries. Assayas is interested in worlds where borders have collapsed, that are always in flux. Here, technology allows Maureen to keep in touch with her far-flung maybe-boyfriend, and she can easily travel between countries like she was walking between rooms. (It will be fun to watch future Assayas movies adjust to a post-Brexit/-Trump world.)

“Personal Shopper” is as much a horror movie (or a fashion movie) as “demonlover” and “Boarding Gate” were thrillers. That’s to say it is and it isn’t. Assayas isn’t as assured a mixologist this time around, especially as his latest builds to a fumbled climax that lurches to a stuttered close. But most of the time he gets the balance just right. The stand-out stretch has Maureen bombarded with text messages from the malicious (and darkly humored) spirit — a good 15-minute stretch so calmly gripping and witty it could go on forever. Even for one of Assayas’ genre doodles, “Personal Shopper” is a bit too chaotic. But as a tag team effort between director and star, it’s peerless.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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