Late of Twilight and now a constant arthouse presence, Kristen Stewart has emerged these last few years as a rare talent who can compel simply by existing onscreen.
If anything, given the more plot-heavy nature of her vampiric outings, there’s evidence to suggest an inverse relationship between how much she’s actually doing and how enjoyable it is to watch her.
Olivier Assayas’ latest collaboration with the increasingly essential Stewart has her playing a Paris personal shopper — who moonlights as a medium. While attempting to commune with the dead in a large, empty house one night, her Maureen quite literally sits in the dark staring at nothing for what feels like a long time. There’s just enough light to make out the expression on her face, and so little ambient noise you can hear yourself breathing.
It’s one of those moments in which nothing happens but there’s a lot going on, and Stewart transfers whatever otherworldly energy she might be feeling onto us. Personal Shopper is a quiet movie, all the better for us to hear every creaking floorboard and let our minds follow sounds that might not be emanating from our realm.
Maureen has a third, self-imposed job as well: waiting. Her twin brother died of a heart condition a few months prior, and now she’s living up to her end of an oath. As both siblings possessed this spiritual gift, they’d agreed that whoever outlived the other would wait to be contacted after the other had passed beyond the veil. Maureen has yet to hear from him at film’s beginning, which is only part of why she’s so uneasy — she also has the same health condition as her twin.
Personal Shopper delights in text messages, haute couture, and unfocused dread but features little in the way of traditional thriller plotting. Assayas, who previously directed Stewart in the even more accomplished Clouds of Sils Maria, devotes one lengthy passage to a train ride in and out of London that finds Maureen besieged by texts from someone who may or may not be dead. Naturally, she can’t help wondering whether the messages might be coming from her dearly departed sibling. (Though perhaps the most troubling mystery in the film, even more so than the central question of whether Maureen’s bro is in fact reaching out to her, is why she puts a space before her question marks, eg. “R u alive or dead ?”)
This marks a change for Maureen, who’s less certain of the afterlife than her brother was. “I have to give his spirit, or whatever you want to call it, a chance to prove him right,” she explains to one skeptic. Taking a similar approach to the film will benefit viewers who are usually agnostic when it comes to this sort of material: Personal Shopper’s paranormal quality makes you want to reach out to it so that you too can feel what the other side might be like.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie
Theater: Opens Friday, Edina Cinema