Kristen Stewart is a polarizing actress. It took me a while to come around on her. Her brooding personality and the pained expression of someone who seemed to want to be anywhere else on the planet, set her off on the wrong foot with movie fans uninvested in choosing sides between Team Edward and Team Jacob. It’s taken some time, but she continues to shake the stigma of those Twilight films, and has proven herself worthy of recent acclaim for her work in indies such as Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria. In what could be her best work to date, she teams up again with her Clouds director Oliver Assayas, in Personal Shopper.
Maureen (Stewart) is seeking something. Many things actually. As a medium, she seeks to make contact with her deceased brother, looking to make good on a sibling promise in which the first to die would attempt to make contact from the other side, proving that something exists after we leave this mortal coil. Trying to determine whether her encounters with the spiritual realm are truly her brother is a more difficult challenge, and she is often haunted by the task both literally and as a sense of duty. We first meet her wandering the dark halls of a mansion that may have been ripped from the mind of Guillermo Del Toro. There is a slow burn of unease that builds throughout the film’s opening minutes, but Assayas’ ideas are bigger than simply setting us up with cliche horror tropes, even though there are a couple of genuinely unnerving moments.
Maureen also seeks identity. As a personal shopper to a young, wealthy socialite, she often reflects on her desire for a better path in life, yet she lingers, generally as unnoticed as the spirits that routinely haunt her. She obsessively seeks truths from beyond as she dutifully scans racks of designer clothes and high priced jewels to outfit her employer’s lavish lifestyle.
Even the relationships she does have, with her employer and her sister-in-law specifically, seem to move about her in a quickened pace, leaving Maureen alone with her thoughts on many occasions. It’s here where Stewart is at her best, and her natural, moody personality tends to play as a strength during her extended moments of personal reflection. She excels when she has nothing to say, and that isn’t a criticism.
The biggest interaction she has in the film however, is with her phone and the anonymous stalker that texts her for the better half of the second act. I feel like Assayas plays with this trope a little too long, building up a tension that ultimately doesn’t pay off as satisfactorily as I had wanted. But, it all serves a grander purpose, as Maureen is forced to self examine herself in a way she hadn’t been willing to do before. She is forced to confront her fears. She admittedly wants to be scared, and it takes the realizations posited by an unnamed and unseen person to bring her to this point.
Personal Shopper isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It rides a fine line between ghost story and thriller, but neither is really the point. This is a story about finding an identity and a purpose, and allowing for self discovery in the process. There is a quiet beauty to Personal Shopper, much like Clouds of Sils Maria without the shots of the lush Swiss countryside. There is a lot to unpack in this film, and trying to decipher all the subtext and metaphor may occupy you for a bit after the credits roll, but that’s what fills my bucket as a movie fan. Or, you might find this to be a boring, pointless slog, which is of course your prerogative. If you hated Clouds of Sils Maria, this might challenge your patience as well. But it won’t be because of that girl from Twilight.