Kristen Stewart might be the most adventurous young actress working today. Instead of playing variations on the Twilight role that made her a star, she keeps pushing ahead into new territory (Camp X-Ray, Still Alice, Certain Women), the riskier the better. Nothing scares her. She hit a recent career peak playing the personal assistant to a demanding Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria. And in Personal Shopper, she reteams with French director Olivier Assayas, to again investigate living in the shadow of another person.
In this unlikely ghost story, Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, an American in Paris who literally stands in for another person. She buys clothes, shoes, jewelry and fashionable accessories for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), an entitled model/actress whose one caveat is that her lackey never try on the clothes herself. Maureen doesn’t always listen. But the imperious Kyra, who’d rather text her assistant than talk to her, is just a job. Our heroine is a practicing medium. She has a mission – an obsession, really – to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, who died of a heart defect (the same one that also plagues his sister). The twins had vowed that the one who died first would make contact through a sign or a ghostly presence. But, at night, along in Lewis’ apartment, the spirit she evokes isn’t her late sibling, but a teasing, sometimes malevolent force that invades her cell phone with texts.
That’s the movie, an exercise in shadowy suspense that requires the star to be on screen every minute. Tooling around Paris on a motorbike, making stops at various fashion houses where her contacts cater to all things Kyra or taking a round-trip train to London, Stewart pulls us into the character’s odyssey through the sheer force of her performance. In the film’s one sex scene, Maureen tries on a bondage outfit she bought for her boss and masturbates in her employer’s bed. In all things, this young woman goes it alone. Except for that cell phone, the true villain of the piece, with its creepy messages (“I want you and I will have you”) and its threats that steer our heroine to a hotel room and a mystery that leads to murder.
No fair saying more, except to add that Stewart makes flesh and blood of Assayas’ indictment of a digital society where text is slowly replacing touch and verbal contact. The movie is virtually all tracking shots, with the camera stalking Maureen with the same erotic fixation of James Stewart pursuing Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Assayas is skilled at turning screws and holding audiences in a vise. For those seeking resolution and loose ends neatly tied, Personal Shopper will be a frustrating, even infuriating, exercise. But the French filmmaker and his star/creative accomplice are chasing something ephemeral that snakes its way into our consciousness and won’t be pinned down. It’s pure cinema, a hypnotic and haunting dream that tempts us to jump in and get lost. Do it.