Stone cold Kristen Stewart kills it in Personal Shopper

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Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

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Kristen Stewart has a curse that I know too well: she looks pissed-off and distant all the time.

In my case, it doesn’t change much. Babies are scared of me, and when I start a new job everyone assumes that I spend all of my time fucking skulls in a basement apartment. Kristen Stewart, though, is a movie star. Audiences and studios alike are uncomfortable with the idea of a movie star that can’t be turned into a blank canvas.

It’s true that Stewart’s range can be a little limited — the Twilight movies, which made her famous, are also the ones that use her talents in the worst way imaginable. When properly cast, Stewart can be a revelation, and Olivier Assayas clearly figured that out. Her performance in his 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria made her the first non-French actress to ever win a César award. Assayas reteams with Stewart for his latest, an icy rumination on loss and grief that’s perhaps not done any favours if described as a ghost movie — which it also unmistakably is.

Assayas essentially makes two kinds of movies: classic dramas in the French mould, like Summer Hours or Something in the Air, and more playful exercises that deconstruct film genre (Boarding Gate, Demonlover) or the film industry itself (Irma Vep, Clouds of Sils Maria). Personal Shopper stands alone in the sense that it’s a little bit of both: a somewhat stodgy yet moody drama with supernatural overtones that deliberately fuck with our perception of what the supernatural “should” mean in cinema. It’s not Assayas’s most accessible film, by any means, but it’s also far from his most obtuse and challenging.

Stewart plays Maureen, an American living in Paris who works as a personal shopper and ersatz assistant to Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a celebrity whose actual occupation is kept vague. Maureen is still reeling from the death of her twin brother — a seemingly benign and unpredictable pre-existing heart condition that he shares with Maureen proved fatal, and now Maureen finds herself in a sort of emotional coma. Her brother’s girlfriend (Sigrid Bouaziz) is attempting to sell their house and move on with her life, but she won’t do so until Maureen (who also doubles as a medium) can make sure that the house isn’t inhabited by a spirit — her brother’s or someone else’s.

Maureen feels like a ghost in life, too, forever telling people that she’s in Paris “waiting,” communicating with her lover over Skype as he works an interminable contract in Oman, coming in and out of her boss’s apartment at all hours of the day and night but almost never interacting with her. When some ghostly apparitions do manifest themselves (a presence, an object knocked off a surface), they simply “aren’t enough” for her. The inclination here is that grief supersedes even the supernatural — that even being able to sense someone will never bring them back.

Assayas toys with the notion of our expectations of the supernatural on-screen, studiously laying a trail of genre-based breadcrumbs that deliberately pay off in unsatisfying ways (sometimes entirely off-screen). Personal Shopper’s detractors have argued that nothing much actually happens in the film, pointing specifically to the fact that Stewart spends a good chunk of its runtime texting back and forth with (presumably) a spectral presence. (It sounds sillier than it is — though it’s admittedly also a little bit silly.) I’d argue that’s exactly what Assayas is going for — as Maureen remains stuck in place, the film spins its wheels and categorically refuses to resolve in the way we imagine.

Assayas’s dance-puppets-dance manipulation of audience expectations can be off-putting at times, but here it works reasonably well in tearing away at the codes and expectations of the genre film and shaping what’s left into something else entirely. It does also make the film more flabby than necessary. It’s one thing to play with audience expectations by planting MacGuffins here and there, but it’s another to constantly dart off into subplots that don’t even pay off in this pranksterish po-mo way that Assayas loves so much.

In that sense, it’s hard to imagine anyone better that Stewart in the role — precisely because of the emotion that transpires when she’s doing nothing at all. It’s not a particularly showy performance, but it’s an entirely appropriate one. ■

Personal Shopper opens in theatres on Friday, March 24. Watch the trailer here:

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