Personal Shopper is a ghost story haunted by moving on

In a more just world, Kristen Stewart would have started acting in Europe. If Kristen Stewart was the hottest French import in Hollywood, there would have never been questioning of her talent. Partially because she’s made for the quiet European arthouse, partially because there wouldn’t have been the expectations of teenage studio blockbusters on her.

But most importantly because it’s likely that she would have been able to work with Olivier Assayas earlier in her career, a French film director who’s so far managed to be uniquely capable of unlocking her best work. In Clouds of Sils Maria, her reserved and disconnected performance managed to hold its own alongside Juliette Binoche.

This time around, Stewart is given the lead in Assayas’ postmodern ghost story Personal Shopper. As I’ve alluded, it should be no surprise how incredibly Stewart acquits herself, but the undue focus I’ve given there could elide the wonderful film Assayas has made here, a film difficult and impossibly intriguing that still lingers on the edges of my brain.

Personal Shopper is about Maureen (Stewart), still lost in Paris after the death of her twin brother Lewis from a heart defect that Maureen shares. She spends most of her time as a personal shopper for model and fashonista Kyra (Nora van Waldstatten). It’s a holding pattern as she attempts to fulfill a promise her and her brother made to each other.

You see, her and Lewis are mediums. And the two made a pact that if one of them died, they would make contact from the other side. Maybe to confirm the afterlife, maybe just to give closure. Maureen waits and searches for signs of her brother, as she starts getting mysterious texts from something unknown.

That’s right, this is a movie where we see a lot of Kristen Stewart texting. Hold with me here, I swear to god it’s compelling. Assayas is telling a story about grief, but it’s not just the mourning, it’s the way we interact with it. Technology is key, something that no longer allows us to totally unhook from the world around us. You can’t withdraw into a grief isolation, everyone can contact you in the middle of mourning.

Assayas understands that, but more importantly, he understands the little nuances of filming technology better than anyone. Film has spent a lot of time dealing with how to show text messaging in the context of the movie, but Personal Shopper makes the best case for just showing it on the damn phone. That’s how we experience it, with that physical object in hand, just show it to us. Beyond that, it’s all the minor things. Assayas finds tension in those three dots that show you someone’s typing, the reconsidering of phrasing in conversation as a character grasping for the words.

That may seem relatively minor, but it adds up to a greater whole. It’s finding those little nuances in the processes that let us identify with the story being told. We know the motions we go through when we’re trying to move on, or we know how to put ourselves in those day-to-day grooves and empathize with the story being told.

Assayas knows how to find those remarkably physical ways to latch on to the way Maureen feels. Her connection with the clothing and the world of Paris is impersonal and scared, we have our distance. The warmth of 35mm filming only comes through in the house where she attempts to find her brother’s ghost and when we get up close as she deals with technology. Assayas is constantly pushing and pulling us into the world as Maureen experiences it, empathy through form.

Of course, there’s no better discussion than Maureen’s experience to talk about Stewart’s central performance, much of the talk of Personal Shopper. I discussed what makes Stewart such a great actress back in the (forgettable) Cafe Society. It’s important to understand that if Stewart isn’t your taste, my evangelism will do you no good. It’s also important to understand that she’s not necessarily an elevating actress, she very easily falls victim to material that isn’t worth her time.

But Personal Shopper is everything I really admire about Stewart as an actress. There’s a conscious naturalism to the way she performs. Her reservation through her movements always feels like it’s revealing as much as the actual motion. She wears the pain of loss in very subtle ways, little bits of reticence in her interaction and in the way she talks to people. Her tics as an actress are perfectly calibrated for Personal Shopper, they make her feel tired and aged far beyond the years she’s lived.

Plus, if I wasn’t already on board, I would be by the end of a late-film long take that would absolutely earn Stewart her fandom, a beautiful piece of acting that’s an absolutely enrapturing completion of the film’s arc.

Personal Shopper welds Assayas and Stewart’s strengths together as well as they ever have. Stewart’s stunning performance and Assayas’ conscious and deliberate performance weld to this wonderful piece of storytelling, something truly real and affecting. Like the ghosts of this story, this film just has yet to leave my brain.

Grade: A