Shop Talk

Kristen Stewart haunts Personal Shopper with a presence all of her own

IN the curved hallway outside of the screening room where I had just watched Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, a movie about a famous model’s glamorous assistant who can possibly talk to ghosts, I overheard a woman, whose face I couldn’t see on the other side of the bend, exclaim that the work was unrealistic and insincere, because she’s shopped at Cartier before and knows from experience that they would never allow a customer to just sling her recent jewelry purchase over her shoulder and drive it home on a motorcycle. They would, of course, messenger it over. What struck me about this critique wasn’t that it was good or bad (how should I know), but that it misapprehended the spirit of the project. Though the film is awash in sequined dresses, leather pants, and precious accessories, it never occurred to me that it was made for an audience that knows what it’s like to shop at Cartier, or, more importantly, would ever want to.

Off the clock, the assistant Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart), a 27-year-old American living in Paris, tries to commune with the “presence” of her recently deceased brother, Lewis, who was also a medium, though far more orthodox than Maureen ever was. Before he died of a congenital heart malformation that he and his sister share, the two promised that whoever passed first would send the other a sign from the afterlife. Maureen wanders her brother’s now empty house, demanding the faucets to burst, the walls to shake. This longing continues at Maureen’s job, where she flicks through racks of pre-sale designs like muted playlists, occasionally lingering on an item as if sensing in it a voice calling out her client’s aura.

When she finds the right outfit, Maureen inevitably buys too much of it--a harness, a bag in every color--but it doesn’t read as the familiar, frivolous strain of cinematic excess, typified by, say, American Psycho, Eyes Wide Shut, or Fifty Shades of Grey. The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote insightfully of the latter that its plot and ethos are driven by a “dream of limitless wealth transforming incredible ugliness into glamour.” The fantasy itself is “limitless” too, since it depends upon the iterated reproduction of this transformational moment, without which the characters’ lives would seem dull, debased.

Maureen’s excess, in contrast, is of the spiritual sort. She’s a catalog of interests, tastes, attitudes, and aches, but she spends most of this energy on herself, that is to say, alone. Much of the film is a study of Maureen’s focus. We see her sketching and reading in her apartment, watching YouTube videos of famous mediums, and, frequently, in transit (train, plane, motorcycle). Though her title suggests a kinship with the personal assistant character Stewart played in Assayas’s 2014 film, Clouds of Sils Maria, Maureen's calm determination and isolation reminded me more strongly of Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung), the protagonist of my favorite Assayas film, Clean (2004). Both portray young artistic women in the throes of having recently lost a loved one. Yawning stretches of tense solitude are punctuated occasionally by a moment of personal resolve or a conversation. Emily is in Paris waiting to be reunited with her son after the death of her partner; Maureen, for the presence of her dead brother to return. And as they linger, like ghosts, in a city that at one time felt like home to them, they give off an intensity that, especially in Maureen’s case, is intriguing to others. The brand representatives Maureen buys from are always begging to see her in their label’s latest wears. Her reticence and composure do nothing to contain the strong impression she leaves on those she encounters. But this isn’t what she’s after.

What distinguishes Personal Shopper from a more straightforward ghost story (or grief story), is its multiple interpretations of Maureen as medium, picking up and sorting through so much social static. She’s keyed into invisible forces, most obviously the afterlife, but she’s also a mediator of capital, in particular--a kind of personal consumption so public and rapacious as to be advertorial. While her boss, Kiera, is out of town, Maureen stays in her home one night, browsing pictures of the socialite at expensive functions, wearing the clothes she’s picked out for her, seething with lust. And not for Kiera.

Maureen is also big on texting, a modern method of communicating with those who are not around. The film’s dramatic centerpiece is a text conversation between Maureen and a mysterious interlocutor whom she suspects could be her brother. Here she articulates for the first time her desire to be someone else, to try on someone else’s life. But this is also what she is most afraid of.

Stewart is an ideal actor for playing up the film's cerebral tension. The general verdict on Stewart’s performance in Personal Shopper has been that she’s withholding, inscrutable, but endowed with a fascinating quality that makes us want to keep looking. She used to just be cold, but now critics are prepared to concede that she’s also cool and talented, or subtle, but never soulful. A handful of critics, like Josephine Livingston and Richard Brody, have rightfully pointed out that Stewart is a naturalist actor: she inhabits a role without losing herself in it. “I never want to step outside myself,” Stewart said in a 2016 interview during her promotional tour for Woody Allen’s Café Society. “Actors talk often about being able to hide behind characters, and they love that. I want to be truly visible, that’s all I want.” Stewart achieves this, more so than in other films, in the scenes from Personal Shopper where she’s acting as if no one’s watching. The high point of the film comes when she drunkenly tries on Kiera’s clothes and then masturbates in her bed. It’s the closest both Maureen and Stewart come to their respective versions of spiritual fulfillment.

At the film’s close, Maureen asks what the audience has been wondering the whole time: Is she talking to ghosts, or just to herself? This question is only poignant insofar as it arises from the depths of a character haunted by her own autonomy, a far more complicated and compelling predicament than needing more and more stuff to feel real. It can be frightening to be alone, which is where grief often leaves us for a time. But Maureen’s critical discomfort is more nebulous than that. She chases restlessly after self-possession by filling her life with objects that speak to her.