“She’s the best actress of her generation,” says Director Olivier Assayas. He’s referring to Kristen Stewart. If you still think about her as that girl who used to star in the ‘Twilight’ franchise, she has parlayed her blockbuster status into an interesting indie film career. In their first collaboration together ‘Clouds of Sils Maria,’ Stewart’s performance earned her the honor of being the first American actress to receive the Cesar (France’s equivalent to the Oscar). In Assayas’s latest work, ‘Personal Shopper’ with his muse, Stewart returns in the most provocative film of the year. It is a supernatural thriller that bends the genre into surprising directions.
Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper in Paris for a world-famous celebrity Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She rides her scooter from one fashion boutique to the next buying expensive clothing for her busy client. Most young women would die for a job like this but she hates it. As an assistant, she has no identity of her own and secretly desires to walk in her boss’s designer shoes. Maureen has another side job as a medium. We see her walk through an old house to find out whether it is still haunted. It’s a frightening scene as she walks through the dark hallways and climbs the creaky stairs. Assayas knows how to build the suspense similar to Hitchcock. The ghost in the house could possibly be Maureen’s twin brother that recently died of a congenital heart defect. She has the same condition and she made a promise with her brother Lewis that if one died the other would wait for a signal from the afterlife.
It’s an extraordinary performance from the actress. Stewart is in every scene and you cannot take your eyes off of her. Her character is in limbo. In a sense, Maureen is like a ghost. She rarely has contact with other people. She is always dropping off expensive couture at her boss’s posh apartment alone. One day she gets a text from a stranger. Suddenly her real and spiritual worlds appear to collide. It is the most suspenseful use of text messaging you will encounter in a film. She begins a frantic exchange of text messages on her smartphone. Is it a stalker or is it her brother Lewis? The messages get creepier as the stranger urges her to try on Kyra’s fashionable clothes. Maureen is forbidden to wear the clothes but does anyway. The dress-up scenes are captivating. Stewart has the grace and beauty of a super model as she walks around in the designer outfits.
Don’t expect a tidy story here with all the answers. Assayas is known for capturing lives in constant motion. Stewart’s character is no exception. It seems like she is always moving on her scooter, purchasing expensive clothes or trying them on to a Marlene Dietrich song. Stewart can display vulnerability like no other actress when she fidgets with a cigarette or bites her lip. On the service, it may seem like a ghost story but Assayas is playing with multiple genres. It is essentially about grief and loss. Stewart wonderfully captures the pain Maureen feels for her brother’s death. At last year’s Cannes, Assayas won best director for ‘Personal Shopper.’ He perfectly sets the stage for the character’s solitude of grief. She must take this existential journey alone like we all do to cope with a death in our family. Stewart’s minimal display of emotion is one of the reasons she is the most talented actress of her generation.
‘Personal Shopper’ is perplexing as well as riveting to watch. It boils down to a trusted relationship between Assayas and Stewart. It’s a gripping portrait of solitude due to a fascinating performance by the young actress. ‘Personal Shopper’ is a must-see at your local arthouse cinema.