Maybe the most impressive thing about Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is that like half the movie takes place via text message and it didn’t annoy the living shit out of me. Seriously, we probably spend more time reading words on Kristen Stewart’s cell phone, as her character communicates with an unknown stalker, than we do listening to her speak. Yet somehow the result is tense and atmospheric instead of straight up obnoxious.
It’s really Stewart’s twitchy millennial angst that sells Personal Shopper. Part ghost story, part metaphysical treatise on coping with loss, grief, and moving on, the plot follows a young woman, Maureen Cartwright (Stewart), haunted by the recent death of her twin brother. As they’re both mediums, connected to the supernatural realms, to something larger than themselves, whoever went first is supposed to send a message from the other side. So Maureen waits, hanging around her brother’s old house, drifting, distant and disembodied, through her days buying clothes for her famous fashion model boss and riding a scooter around Paris.
Waiting is the key word when it comes to Personal Shopper; waiting sits at the center. Assayas isn’t a filmmaker known for the breakneck pace of his films, and this isn’t a particularly quick ride. Though not a remarkably brisk tempo, there’s nevertheless a forceful propulsion. At least until the final act. At a certain point, the pace dips from deliberate and methodical to full-blown turgid. Up to then, the meandering, the travel from one place to another with no real destination, is purposeful and the lack of movement is a progression in its own right. The character may be lost, but the movie isn’t…until it is. Assayas, who also wrote the script, rights the ship with a remarkable, shiver-inducing final scene—and a pitch perfect final line—but for a time the film comes unmoored.
If there’s any justice, this will be the last nail in the coffin of the “Kristen Stewart can’t act” camp. We get it, Twilight sucked and that’s the only one you’ve seen, but guess what? By now she’s proven to be a goddamn fantastic actor time and time again. I get that her style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor are the movies she chooses—Personal Shopper is definitely not a film with four-quadrant appeal—but it’s time for the naysayers to shut the fuck up already and find another hill on which to die.
Stewart 100% carries Personal Shopper. Despite her staid exterior, Maureen has an urgency, a pressure from intangible forces both internal and external. The calm, resigned exterior—her fidgety, I-need-a-cigarette fingers may be her most expressive feature—masks a deep anxiety and anguish. Stewart delivers a natural, riveting performance without ever taking the most obvious route and shows off a subtle but astonishing range.
A cinematic tone poem, Personal Shopper flirts with horror and psychological thriller without ever fully claiming either. The lingering strangeness, emotional ambiguity, and indefinite conclusion defies easy answers and definitions, but the result is a compelling if esoteric film. [Grade: B+]