It’s often said that a great actor is proven not by their finest films but their duds, their ability to sell a movie that would otherwise be forgettable or even risible without their presence. To that end, Personal Shopper proves that Kristen Stewart has become a great actress. The former Twilight star is onscreen for nearly every moment of Olivier Assayas’ supernatural head-scratcher, a tonal mishmash that combines elements of fantasy and horror with a Paris-set satire of the fashion industry. The French director behind Carlos and Demonlover has described his latest as a “collage,” but in truth, it’s a pile of scraps that never quite coheres.
This is Stewart’s second outing with the French auteur following Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she won a Cesar, and she all but reprises her role from the previous film. The 26-year-old again plays the put-upon assistant to a complicated celebrity. In the previous edition, her boss was an aging diva, Maria (Juliette Binoche), forced to concede the stage role that made her famous to a young starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz), while Maria takes the part of an older woman. This time the boss is a celebutante, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), who is too busy attending Milan Fashion Week to buy her own clothing. A tomboy who wears Lacoste polos and oversize sweaters, Maureen (Stewart) dreams of slipping her feet into Kyra’s Chanel shoes.
When she’s not busy pleasing her “monster” of a boss, Maureen doubles as a medium. She has recently lost her twin brother, Lewis, who died of a malformation in his heart. Maureen shares the same condition. Before he passed away, Lewis promised to make contact from the other side, and his sister is waiting for a sign that he’s at peace. None has come. “It’s extremely difficult to find a portal into the spirit world,” Maureen tells his widow (Sigrid Bouaziz). It’s clear, though, that Maureen is the one who needs convincing that her brother is still out there somewhere.
A word of advice: Should you ever find yourself an undead presence hoping to make contact with the living, it’s best to make an entrance. After all, you’re dead, so you may as well go big. In The Amityville Horror, a possessed Dutch Colonial emits a demonic ooze from nail holes in the walls. The Babadook, of the 2014 film of the same name, leaves the heroine sadistic children’s books that depict the malevolent spirit killing her child and dog. The possible ghost in Personal Shopper, however, reaches out through text messages. This raises a great many questions. What carrier does the ghost use? Are there roaming charges in the afterlife? Do they still have flip phones in purgatory?
Personal Shopper, to its grave misfortune, never acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise. Assayas presents the film, which includes a scene where Maureen discusses vomiting up ectoplasm with a straight face, without the faintest hint of irony. That somber self-seriousness makes it extremely difficult not to giggle during the following exchange, which recalls the world’s most sinister AIM chatroom. Maureen receives a message from an unknown number. “I know you,” the stranger writes. “And you know me.” Suspecting it might be her brother, Maureen decides to play a game of 20 Questions with the anonymous correspondent. “R u a man or a woman?” Maureen asks. “R u real? R u alive or dead?” Viewers who were hoping to find out if the interloper is an animal or a mineral, however, will leave sorely disappointed.
The film is both unintentionally funny and dramatically confused, lurching from scene to scene like the hobbled author in Misery. It’s sometimes a dark comedy about the excess of celebrity, which Maureen forcefully rejects. When a suitor of Kyra’s comes to visit — who just so happens to work for Vogue — he offers her assistant one of those vague positions that men always say they can get for the young and comely. Maureen claims that the magazine does is sell advertising space. After Kyra is brutally murdered in her apartment, Personal Shopper becomes a detective thriller. Was it the ghost? Or was it her squeeze, who doesn’t appear to mind that she’s married? After two years of an affair, he claims that it’s strictly physical. Love has never crossed the man’s mind.
Personal Shopper is nothing if not a daring experiment in genre, but it cuts between so many styles that the film begins to resemble the unpublished novel in Sideways. “It shifts around a lot,” Paul Giamatti tells Virginia Madsen in that film of the book that resides in his trunk. “Like you also start to see everything from the point of view of the father. And some other stuff happens, some parallel narrative, and then it evolves — or devolves — into a kind of a Robbe-Grillet mystery, with no real resolution.” You can just picture the script for Personal Shopper sitting in a pile of boxes in the back of Assayas’ car.
For the film’s many sins, Personal Shopper is surprisingly effective and intermittently gripping. For that, credit is due to a truly phenomenal performance from Stewart, who has never been better than she is here. Wracked with grief following the loss of her brother, Maureen is the film’s true specter, a kind of ghost wandering through her own life, waiting to move on. During a Q&A, Assayas claims that he likes working with Stewart, who has quickly become his muse, because the actress works from the inside. Her portrait of suffering, in which we can feel the overwhelming weight of her brother’s spirit, goes bone-deep — as if Maureen were trauma personified. Stewart is so endlessly fascinating to watch in this movie that she could text the phone book and it would still be compelling.
Stewart is quietly having a fantastic year. Her conflicted secretary, torn between Hollywood glamour and the nebbish boy who loves her, was the best part of Cafe Society, a surprisingly strong late-period Woody Allen film. She also shined in Drake Doremus’ Equals and will also appear in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the latest from chameleon Ang Lee, and Certain Women, a portrait of small-town life from Kelly Reichardt. Personal Shopper might be a failed, if noble, attempt at transcending genre, but you’ll leave psyched to see what its star does next.