Kristen Stewart shot to fame as Bella Swan in The Twilight Saga series and has also appeared in big budget films like Snow White and the Huntsman. But her talents really shine in less high profile vehicles, like Still Alice where she played the daughter least likely to care for her Alzheimer-striken mother (Julianne Moore in her Oscar-winning performance). In Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assayas, Stewart stood out as the spirited assistant to an aging actress (Juliette Binoche). That performance won Stewart a César Award, making her the first American actress to do so. Stewart and Assayas are together once again in his new film, Personal Shopper. This may be Stewart’s best performance to date. It’s certainly a memorable one.
Stewart’s Maureen Cartwright lives in Paris and, as the title suggests, she’s a personal shopper, zipping around the city on her motor bike, frequenting designer showrooms to select outfits for a media celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Kyra is married to a wealthy man (we never learn any more about him), while having an affair with a writer for French Vogue (Lars Eldinger). She attends as many events as possible so she can be photographed and post the images on social media. The designers lend Kyra the clothes, expecting them to be returned.
Maureen has a good eye and what she selects keeps Kyra in the spotlight. Her hard work is not rewarded. Kyra is the boss from hell, forbidding Maureen from trying on any of the borrowed clothes. When Kyra decides to keep two pairs of leather pants, Maureen is on the hook and must deal with the designer.
Maureen puts up with Kyra because she has unfinished business in Paris. She and her twin brother, Lewis, both mediums able to sense spirits, were born with the same heart defect. They promised each other that the twin who went first would send the other a message. After Lewis dies of a heart attack, Maureen is determined to stay until she receives a sign from her brother that he’s OK.
The opening scene finds Maureen in a spooky, deserted mansion owned by Lewis. She spends the night and feels a presence. Is it Lewis? A couple wants to buy the home but is looking for Maureen to assure them that any spirits still lingering are benign. (I would opt for no spirits, but perhaps the Parisian housing market is tight.) Another evening, one very angry ghost appears then vanishes. Maureen tells Lewis’ partner, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), that the spirit will not return and that the house is clean.
Lara has moved on, now in a relationship with one of Lewis’ friends. Maureen, however, is still grieving. She’s alive, but she’s barely surviving, walking through her daily routines like the ghosts she sometimes sees. She begins receiving on her phone disturbing texts from “unknown.” Whoever it is, knows everything about her, including what she fears. Is the sender someone she knows? A person? A spirit? Lewis? Exhausted and vulnerable, Maureen begins acting on some of the sender’s suggestions, spending a night at Kyra’s apartment trying on the borrowed clothes and using a card key left for her to visit a hotel room. No one is there, deepening the mystery.
While the supporting cast is solid, this is Stewart’s film to carry and she is in total control. She’s is in virtually every scene, but that’s not why we can’t keep our eyes off her. Eschewing the physical moves that characterized her action films, she pulls us into her character with the smallest gesture or facial expression. It’s a riveting performance, one that will stay in the viewer’s mind long after the final scene.
Assayas has produced an enigmatic, multi-layered film. It’s a character study, a supernatural thriller, a murder mystery, with a woman-in-danger at the center. It dips into horror with some scenes featuring ghostly apparitions, but the psychological suspense is what keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Photos by Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films.