Young actors still figuring out their craft, and themselves, always want to work with seasoned directors, for obvious reasons. But those sorts of spring-autumn pairings often benefit filmmakers as much as they do performers. Personal Shopper is the second film from ace French director Olivier Assayas to feature Kristen Stewart: She won a Cesar for her role in his last picture, The Clouds of Sils Maria, where she played the perceptive, long-suffering personal assistant to a demanding actress (played by Juliette Binoche).
The Assayas-Stewart partnership blossoms further with Personal Shopper, a shivery, slow-building story about grief, ghosts and beautiful, expensive clothes. Stewart plays Maureen, an American who’s living in Paris and working at a seemingly cool job that she truly hates, running errands for a very busy, very snooty French actress. Maureen spends her days dashing from one atelier to another, picking up extraordinary, and extremely expensive, garments for her boss to wear. But her real preoccupation is communication with the dead: She’s desperate to establish contact with her twin brother, Lewis, who has recently died. When an acquaintance tells her about Hilma af Klint, an early abstract painter who drew inspiration from her communications with the spirit world, Maureen immediately Googles for info; then she buys a book. In Assayas’s world, people always want to know more—though in Personal Shopper, Maureen may end up knowing too much.
Lewis and Maureen had always promised each other that whoever died first would send a sign to the other. So Maureen spends several nights in her brother’s empty house, a nest of shadowy corridors and murky windows, begging him to speak to her. One night, water blasts from the faucet spontaneously. Then Maureen sees a dark, feathery wraith that sends her flying to the floor—she cowers against a wall. (To describe the special effects further would be a betrayal of the film, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anything so unnerving since Robert Wise’s The Haunting.) Later, Maureen receives a mysterious, teasing text message from a sender tagged “Unknown.” And so, via her possibly haunted smartphone, she begins communicating with the unknown. Could it be Lewis texting her from the other side? Maureen jumps to respond each time she hears that familiar “bzzt,” and Stewart makes us feel the electronic tingle in our own nerve endings.
Personal Shopper is a strange and beautifully made film, and both star and director are clearly energized by their dual mission. This is unlike any other Assayas film, though if you know and love his work, you’ll spot familiar touches: Stewart, in a helmet and sumptuously worn-in leather aviator’s jacket, tooling around Paris on a motorbike, is an image borrowed from Assayas’s early masterpiece Irma Vep—though it’s an homage not to himself, but to the idea of youthful restlessness.
Stewart is both laid back and ablaze here. Her eyes can be as alert as a tiger’s, but more often they seem to assay the world with the cool, lazy blink of a lizard. She moves with the grace of a boy who both plays baseball and takes ballet. At one point, in an act of sultry defiance, Maureen secretly tries on one of her boss’s costly dresses, trussing her tomboy-flapper figure in a faux-bondagey harness that’s later draped with a floating layer of black chiffon. Soft and strong, she’s garçon and femme, boy and woman, at once. You wouldn’t call her gamine—that’s too cute, too in-between, and Stewart is definitive. She knows exactly who she is: Her allure is that she keeps us guessing.