In 1976’s The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin makes a crucial verb distinction when discussing the screen legends, like Bette Davis, with whom he was transfixed (sometimes uneasily so) in his youth: “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” When one goes to see Kristen Stewart — among the most quicksilver of her generation’s performers — in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a shape-shifting, resolutely of-this-moment ghost story that features her in nearly every frame, one goes not to watch her act but refract.
I mean this as high praise. Following Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Personal Shopper is the second of two collaborations to date between Stewart and Assayas, the French auteur with whom the American superstar has most ingeniously torqued her real-life career. In the earlier film, Stewart plays Valentine, the bespectacled personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche, whose own professional arc informs her Clouds), an internationally renowned 40-year-old star of stage and screen.
There’s a perverse thrill in watching Stewart, long an A-lister, so astutely inhabit the role of helpmate. Though deferential, Valentine doesn’t hesitate to challenge Maria, delivering an eloquent defense of blockbusters when her employer slams industrial cinema — the very kind of moviemaking that made Stewart a star. Despite being boss and underling, Maria and Valentine have a relationship that is constantly in flux, the lines between the personal and the professional often blurred.
There’s even less stability to Personal Shopper, an outré yet unexpectedly touching tale of luxury brands and ectoplasm. Here, Stewart’s character, Maureen, in the title profession, is demoted to an even lowlier celebrity adjutant. A studiously disheveled American temporarily in Paris (greasy hair, oversize pullovers, a look not unlike the one Stewart herself has been seen sporting in paparazzi shots), Maureen hopes to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared a paranormal gift. (The two Assayas-Stewart films also suggest a haunted twinship; in Clouds of Sils Maria, Valentine vanishes, specter-like, into the misty mountains of Switzerland’s easternmost canton.)
When she’s not waiting to receive signals from the dead, Maureen dashes from one high-end boutique to the next for the fashion-fascist celebutante/gorilla-rights-activist boss she says she despises, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Just before boarding the Eurostar to London for yet another haute-couture errand, Maureen seems to receive a message from the beyond: the first in a string of menacing texts from an unknown source. Thanks to this volley of Bieber-ese (“R u real?”), transpiring over several days, the iPhone clutched in Maureen’s hand becomes Stewart’s most significant screen partner in Personal Shopper, a film in which she is often framed in isolation.
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The premise is ludicrous, but not unexpected from Assayas, a restlessly inventive filmmaker whose sinister global thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) likewise pivot on absurd plot points to plumb 21st-century malaise and disorder. Yet the most salient predecessor to Personal Shopper might be Irma Vep (1996), Assayas’ affectionate, frantic metamovie in which Maggie Cheung plays a version of herself: a luminary of Hong Kong action pictures who arrives in Paris to star in a bedeviled remake of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade’s famed 1915 silent serial. Assayas wrote both Irma Vep and Personal Shopper expressly for their respective female leads, though the latter project operates as an inverse of the former: While Irma Vep helped introduce Cheung to audiences unfamiliar with her work in Asian pop cinema, the current movie — a modestly budgeted, highly idiosyncratic production — allows one of the most famous people on the planet to become smaller.
And also, paradoxically, bigger: I can’t think of another Stewart vehicle, not even any of the films from the Twilight pentad, in which the actress appears in every scene, often alone or as an anonymous figure in a crowd (most thrillingly as Maureen motors from arrondissement to arrondissement on her Peugeot scooter). In this supernatural tale, the phantom looming largest is that of Stewart’s actual celebrity, a reflecting made doubly literal when Maureen surreptitiously tries on Kyra’s glassy-spangled dress from Chanel — the exclusive brand for which Stewart has been an ambassador for the past few years.
Dropping off some finery at Kyra’s empty luxe dwelling, the assistant tries on another of her employer’s haute-couture ensembles, one with a harness and transparent bodice. This charged, forbidden act is made even more lubricious when Maureen begins to masturbate in Kyra’s bed. The actress loses herself in the scene’s lurid hall of mirrors, succumbing to the irony of playing a character who gets turned on by pretending to be, however briefly, someone she’s not — that is, by acting.
The frisson is multiplied as we watch Stewart — who, in real life, must always be on guard against stalkers and other predators — portray someone who thrills at violating the rules and sanctum of her own V.I.P. boss. “Or is it just me?” Maureen asks the spirit world in Personal Shopper’s final minutes before the screen fades to ghostly white. Determining the antecedent of me stands as the film’s most confounding pleasure.