OnScreen Review: 'Personal Shopper'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

It’s easy to forget that Kristen Stewart has had an acting career outside of the Twilight series, that Twilight encompassed only 5 years of her life, and that she’s still just 27 when she’s been a public figure since Panic Room in 2002.  Even during the Twilight years, she was still active in smaller films that were eclipsed (no pun intended) by her role in this massive franchise.  Since then, though, she has largely shied away from the big studio efforts and focused on the smaller pictures.  In fact, after the pairing of Snow White and the Huntsman and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, nothing she has done since has grossed over even $20 million domestically.  Given how public her life became at such a young age, it stands to reason that she would retreat from that as she got older.  But being out of the box office spotlight does not mean she has been inactive.  On the contrary, she has slowly begun to establish herself as a critical darling while working with people like Woody Allen, Julianne Moore, Juliette Binoche, Jesse Eisenberg, Kelly Reichardt, and Olivier Assayas.  Personal Shopper is her second collaboration with Assayas, who had previously cast her in The Clouds of Sils Maria

Here Stewart is Maureen, a young woman living in Paris whose fraternal twin recently passed away.  Both Maureen and her brother believed they were mediums, capable of communicating with the dead, and Maureen is waiting for a sign from her brother, whom she had made a pact with that whichever one died first would find a way to communicate to the other.  While in this holding pattern, Maureen spends her days as a personal shopper going about Paris buying clothes and running errands for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten, a wealthy actress who is too famous to go out in public for routine things.  While on a trip to London for Kyra, she begins to receive text messages from an unknown that may be from her brother.

While there are a few small thrills, it’s not a horror or a thriller, at least certainly not in the conventional sense.  It’s also not particularly scary either.  But the film develops a distinct atmosphere that, when coupled with Stewart’s performance, pulls you in.  It’s a story with supernatural elements, but Assayas puts effort into trying to ground it in a kind of reality, giving a historicity to the paranormal aspect of the film, discussing the mysticism behind the abstract paintings of artist Hilma af Klint, and even going so far as to create a fictional made-for-TV movie from the 60s that a character claims is based on an séance involving Victor Hugo.  This makes things less hokey when some spectral images begin to appear on screen, and Assayas restrains this aspect of the film mostly to the fringes rather than making the paranormal visuals a centerpiece.

Because there is no question what, or rather who, is the centerpiece of this film and that is Kristen Stewart.  She is in practically every scene in the film.  It’s essentially becomes a vehicle to showcase her acting talents as she is the only lead.  All of the other actors in the film are minor supporting roles surrounding Stewart’s Maureen.  Kyra is someone she mostly interacts with over the phone and they barely cross paths in person.  In fact, most of the film Maureen spends interacting as much with objects as she does with people, pouring through dresses, purses, and shoes for Kyra or going back and forth with the “Unknown” on her phone via text message.  Stewart manages to remain captivating even when it’s just her and her phone on a train.  This is because of Assayas slowly builds the emotional weight of her being in this holding pattern waiting to hear from her brother.  The character she has the most interaction with in person is Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), her brother’s significant other, who is looking to sell his house to friends that want to make sure it isn’t haunted.

It’s easy to see this film as a companion piece to The Clouds of Sils Maria.  Stewart played an assistant to a famous actress (played by Binoche) in that film and here is another type of assistant to a famous actress/celebrity of some kind.  In addition to Stewart, there are a few other actors that are also in both films.  And both films touch on themes of identity, with Binoche’s actress struggling with the insecurity of being replaced in SIls Maria.  Here, Maureen reveals sometimes she wishes she were someone else, occasionally tries on the elegant and expensive clothing she has bought for Kyra, and is texting with an unknown person.  There’s also the sense that she is missing that connection that some twins seem to have, which also plays a role in everything.  Lastly, both films have endings that are open to interpretations, but even more so in Personal Shopper.  There seem to be several ways to read the ending here, none of which resolve neatly in my mind.  It’s the kind of ending that could be unsatisfying, but fits with the overall mood of the film.

Having personally avoided the Twilight series, it was easy for me to dismiss Kristen Stewart as a product of a teen craze that was obsessed with the books, the movies, and her relationship with Robert Pattinson.   But I’m beginning to think that Twilight will be the exception and not the norm when we look back on her filmography.  Personal Shopper is another testament to her talent as an actress, which she has shown more and more in the last few years in roles outside the mainstream.  Personal Shopper is a beautifully haunting and elegiac little film. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars