Kristen Stewart is finally starting to collect the recognition she deserves as one of the most rawly talented actors working today, at least in major critical circles. While polling my sister or my coworkers for their thoughts on KStew still only trudges up old Twilight residue, Stewart’s earned herself a nice little pocket of mainstream critical recognition, whether it be an entire Filmspotting episode dedicated to her work or a world class impersonation of her physical tics & quirks from Kate McKinnon in an otherwise middling SNL sketch. The problem is that the level of obvious, powerful talent in her screen presence (which I’ve described as a mix of Lauren Bacall smokiness & James Dean cool) isn’t being matched by the quality of the films they serve. I might personally go to bat for titles like Equals or American Ultra every time they come up, but they’re not films most people hold in high regard. Director Olivier Assayas’s two collaborations with Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria & Personal Shopper, seem to be a corrective for that career trajectory disappointment. Assayas is almost single-handedly (along with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women) providing Stewart the arthouse context that allows her consistently fascinating work to earn real attention & prestige. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is afforded the opportunity to hold her own against dramatic heavyweight Juliette Binoche and does so with casual finesse. In Personal Shopper, she has no such indie world giant to contend with and carries an entire arthouse film on her back as the constant center of attention. I’m grateful that Assayas has been able to promote & boost Stewart’s notoriety as a significant talent in this way. I just wish either of these collaborations could match the potency of the performances she lends them.
In a lot of ways Personal Shopper seems specifically crafted to be the perfect ideal of a Kristen Stewart vehicle. Stewart’s physical displays of nervousness, a concrete set of tics that allowed McKinnon to land such a dead-on impersonation in the first place, make perfect sense within the context of the film. A personal shopper for a high-strung socialite in Paris, Stewart’s skittish protagonist is alone in a major city, attempting to communicate with her brother’s ghost through one-woman séances, and blindly stumbling into the center of a murder mystery & ensuing police investigation. Given the circumstances, Stewart’s usual mode of darting her eyes back & forth, nervously running her hands through her hair, and just generally giving off the vibe that’s she’s gone her entire life without a full night’s sleep make total sense. Her character is a scared, emotional wreck. She can’t make a big show of these emotions, however, due to a medical condition that prevents her from becoming too physically excited or stressed, doctor’s orders. Personal Shopper is the exact ideal of a Kristen Stewart vehicle, not only teeing up a screentime-demanding performance she’s more than qualified to fulfill, but also pairing that presence with recognizable genre thrills audiences can easily latch onto. There’s almost no genre older than the ghost story, a tradition Assayas acknowledges in-film by referencing old movies that have already covered the territory. That’s why it’s such a shame that the film itself finds ways to underwhelm, avoiding any fresh or significant payoff to the nervous energy Stewart expertly builds in the first two acts.
As a ghost story, Personal Shopper is satisfyingly eerie in its mix of old world technique & modern urban ennui. In an early scene Stewart is alone in her brother’s old residence calling out to the spirit world for a definite, unmistakable sign that his ghost is attempting to contact her from beyond the grave. The loud noises and physical disturbances she’s met with when she makes these demands are familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a haunted house feature before. Even more familiar are the physical manifestations of ghosts, who do eventually appear, but look like the same rudimentary CG smoke that has defined ghostly cinematic representation going at least as far back as Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners. References to séances, ectoplasm, Spiritualism, mediums, and portals into the spirit world all feel just as rooted in ancient movie magic tradition. Assayas does find a way to at least slightly modernize this old world ghost story by questioning whether it’s even ghosts or spirits that are being communicated with instead of some sort of non-human presence or, as Stewart puts it, just “a vibe.” He also makes modern technology a kind of medium in itself. Empty elevator cars, automatic sliding doors opening for no one, text messages seemingly broadcasting from beyond the grave: Personal Shopper is peppered with images of a spooky modernity. In a way, Stewart’s protagonist is a ghost herself, haunting the streets of Paris. Her brother, a large part of her, has died before the movie even begins. She mostly communicates with her boss through passed notes instead of direct interaction. Her boyfriend can only reach her through the digital grain of long-distance Skype sessions. This thankfully doesn’t lead to a Shyamalan-type twist about her vitality, though, just questions about who or what she’s communicating with, what life alone in a major city can do to one’s sense of isolation & grief, and how the world beyond our grasp can be felt & understood as, well, a vibe.
It does seem a little silly to fault Personal Shopper for being merely pretty good when I wanted (if not needed) it to be truly great. If nothing else, I found it to be a huge step up from Assayas’s work in Clouds of Sils Maria, an acknowledgement for the necessity of satisfying audiences with emotional payoff from a film’s central themes. The basic genre thrills of a classic ghost story narrative don’t hurt the film’s muted, but pleasant charms either. It’s just frustrating to feel Assayas reach for something more ambitious & intangible beyond those modest rewards without ever getting close. It’s interesting to see him frame this ambition in the context of Abstract Art as a tradition, specifically referencing the work of painter Hilma af Klimpt as a comparison point. His work never fulfills that kind of transcendental analysis, though. If it did, he’d have found new, unfamiliar ways to represent ghosts onscreen or completely shift the film’s visual representation of its narrative into something more vibe-conscious and less straightforward. Personal Shopper is a film that’s confident in its sense of mood, a haunted reflection of modern melancholy, but does little to excite in terms of breaking form & offering something that’s never been seen before. The film’s biggest accomplishment is in providing KStew enough room to once again prove herself to be an effortlessly powerful screen presence. She would have been better served, however, if the film were able to achieve more than that. She’s already had enough stepping stones on her way to a career-defining barn burner of a starring role. It’s likely unfair to judge Personal Shopper harshly for not being that knockout of a KStew film that’s sure to come (and soon), but it was close enough to being that ideal that it left me disappointed for not getting there.