Kristen Stewart will never star in a film like La La Land. She may have a terrific singing voice, but her acting instincts are too inward. Her characters would never dare share what they’re feeling, unless said declaration was meant as passive aggressive hostility. A reserved, borderline obtuse acting style did not serve her in the Twilight franchise, since Bella is a hollow husk of a character. Luckily Olivier Assayas – the French filmmaker who specializes in slow-burn intrigue – has found his muse in Stewart. In the recent Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart took an ostensibly dual role and found resentment alongside cautious empathy. Assayas’ follow-up is Personal Shopper, and it features Stewart in every scene. It is a strange, genre-bending film: it mixes a ghost story, a Hitchcockian thriller, and a muted character study. The film would fall apart without Stewart, whose unique abilities elevate the material into something strangely moving.
A young woman (Stewart) is taken to an isolated mansion in the French countryside. There are long takes where she wanders from room to room, or smokes a cigarette. There are scary noises at night – a thump, a creaking door – and the woman calls out a man’s name into the darkness. This is our introduction to Maureen, an American who believes her recently deceased twin brother Lewis haunts the mansion. Out of obligation more than anything else, Maureen stays near where Lewis died, in the off-chance his spirit tries to contact her (he promised he would). She makes a living as a personal shopper, someone who picks out higher end clothing/accessories for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), an unspecified celebrity. Maureen misses her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin), and spends time with Lewis’ ex Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz). Her routine feels suffocating, but then she receives texts from an unknown number. Could the texts be from Lewis? Probably not, except Maureen starts to entertain the idea.
The opening act of Personal Shopper follows Maureen, never quite deigning to explain the particulars of her life. We learn the details slowly, and in convincing ways; Assayas mostly eschews the tropes of supernatural horror. He would rather consider the premise with realism, asking how a modern woman would come to believe in ghosts. The answer involves a cocktail of grief and hope, and Assayas ups the ante with ghastly special effects. The ghost scenes are creepy and ephemeral, and since no one else besides Stewart experiences the supernatural, we are left wondering just what to think. This technique could have been annoying – he offers one clue, only to add another layer to the puzzle – but it is ultimately involving since the plot serves Maureen’s character development. She hopes against hope – not that she would let anyone else know that.
The centerpiece of Personal Shopper is a sequence that likely made Brian De Palma jealous. Maureen takes a daytrip from Paris to London, runs an errand, then gets drunk in Kyra’s apartment. Throughout the day, she sends and receives texts from that anonymous number. Each notification comes with the requisite sound, and the pauses between each sound and Maureen’s errands lead toward more curiosity. The sequence ends with a much-discussed payoff – it involves Stewart in a sexual situation – and yet her sexuality or nudity is not the point. All this behavior ties to Lewis, in a cocktail of grief and yearning, and Maureen cannot always contain them. The texting continues well beyond the London trip, leading toward a moment of well-earned, delightful suspense.
Hitchcock famously did not think much of his actors, and his leading women in particular. He would abuse the director/actor relationship, torturing his actors until they achieved exactly what he wanted. There is no sense of that in the relationship between Assayas and Stewart. He gives Maureen room to breathe, using negative space and backgrounds to heighten her isolation. There are few close-ups in Personal Shopper; Assays prefers a medium take, in no small part because it gives Stewart the opportunity to find nuance in body language. As Maureen, Stewart is introspective, even a little cruel, as she wanders from one transaction to another. She finally lets her guard down in a scene with Anders Danielsen Lie, who you may recognize as the lead from Oslo August 31st. He plays Erwin, Lara’s new boyfriend, and he breaks down Maureen’s defenses simply by having no hidden agenda and speaking sincerely. Assayas lets the dialogue speak for itself, only to upend again our notion of all that preceded it.
There are lots of isolated questions in Personal Shopper. One of them is quite literal: during the texting sequence, Maureen has this strange habit of putting a space between the end of a sentence and a question mark. She does that a lot, except when she loses patience and really wants to know who is messing with her head. Throughout Personal Shopper, there is a fluid line between objectivity and Maureen’s internal struggle. The only wholly objective sequences are what she watches on her iPhone, including a film within a film about Victor Hugo leading a séance. Many questions do not have answers, and one in particular has the complexity of Schrodinger’s box. That is ultimately immaterial, since Maureen does not require a tidy resolution. If the final scene offers a twist, it is deliberately unsatisfying. The remarkable development – one that few films achieve – is how seemingly random events coalesce into a bizarre, albeit satisfying journey.