Kristen Stewart’s transformation from YA saga cipher to captivating, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her screen presence was so gradual that one can hardly believe that they’re watching the same performer at times. In recent years Stewart has earned the sort of critical adulation rarely afforded to former teen stars, a fact largely due to the actor’s savvy post-franchise career moves – chief among them her collaborations with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas – and a string of powerhouse performances.
After her César-winning supporting turn in Assayas’ sublime Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart rightfully takes centre stage in the writer/director’s latest outing, Personal Shopper. The film puts Stewart in the role of Maureen, a personal shopper who moonlights as a medium for the dead. Maureen spends her days motoring around Paris on a scooter, buying, borrowing, and trying on expensive clothes and jewelry for her bratty client, but by night she haunts old houses in an attempt to commune with the departed, particularly the spirit of her recently deceased twin Lewis. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact her dead sibling, Maureen begins receiving mysterious text messages from someone – or something – with intimate knowledge of her life and work.
Personal Shopper is a moody and often frightening meditation on death and those it leaves in its wake. Despite its arthouse leanings, the film is a supernatural horror movie at heart. It’s a genre that’s mostly off limits to “serious filmmakers” like Assayas, but the director’s almost forbidden fascination with horror is clear. Like Maureen, who dresses up in her client’s haute couture fashion when no one is watching, Assayas toys with genre conventions (yes, there’s even pseudo-scientific technobabble and jump scares here) but then purposefully brings the proceedings back down to earth when things start to get a little too eerie. Stewart has uttered phrases like “she vomited ectoplasm” on screen before, but it’s Assayas’ deployment of this dialogue and broader horror conventions in what is an otherwise crushingly realistic film that creates a fascinating contrast.
None of the director’s genre dabbling would work if not for Stewart though. On screen for nearly all of Personal Shopper‘s nearly two hour runtime, she is absolutely magnetic as this woman in limbo – waiting for something that may never happen – haunted by her past and uncertain about the future. What does it mean to live life at the behest of people you never see – living or dead? Whether she’s rattling around an empty mansion or her client’s unoccupied apartment, Maureen, pale and sunken-eyed, at times feels like more of a ghost than the spirits she so desperately seeks. Are we, the audience, the only ones who can see her?