As some sort of declaration, not necessarily caring of its possible futility, I must exclaim the divisiveness pertaining to the talents of Kristen Stewart is something I loathe...or just aggressively apathetic towards. In watching Olivier Assayas's new film, Personal Shopper, at The Little in Rochester, NY, it was the first time I have seen a Kristen Stewart film on the silver screen. No excess baggage is tied to me in knowing Kristen Stewart plays the lead role: no Twilight, no other mainstream films, no tempestuous relationships. What I wanted was to see Stewart in her day job, free from distraction, observing her noted subdued quality in acting and reacting, and come to my own terms. Assayas, who had cast her in the acclaimed film, Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she was the first American to win the French Oscar-equivalent, the Cesar, understands the particular expanse Stewart's personality can roam in. What may lack in a supposed versatility is offset by effective authenticity since Stewart roams in a character she connects with. Her performance becomes the epicenter of the film's prideful obtuseness.
Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper for a distinguished Parisian model who cannot perform normal activities consequently to such fame. While not zipping from one store to the next, spending thousands of dollars (and writing blank checks, mind you), Maureen practices mediumship, occasionally staying overnight in an abandon house her brother use to live in to attempt to connect with his wandering spirit. She does so with an intriguing mix of desire and disinclination. And the source of such disinclination is also the source of much of the film's tension and character conflict. Maureen is an introvert living in a world that may have taken advantage of such a trait to the point where her individuality is minified into submission. Early on, Maureen explains that the reason she is a medium is not for herself but for her deceased brother, and her stints inside the haunted house are similar to her task of entering clothing stores and finding the right articles of clothing: one is for her brother, the other for a model.
Through this tormenting subordination, Stewart's Maureen enters in a constant struggle of self-identification. And this is where Stewart's muffled performance works because on one hand it is, indeed, muffled: her spare dynamism in tonality suggests distance. But what her voice disguises the rest of her body reveals, almost to a fault (through Assayas's direction). For the most part, it works extremely well, and an extended scene in the middle of the film where Maureen interacts with a disembodied stranger on a train to London exhibits a painful deconstruction of a faceless individual coming to terms with her own damaging passivity.
Imagine having to fixate on the death of a loved one, in Maureen's case through being a medium, when your struggle is to move on from a traumatic moment in your life. Assayas's framework and Stewarts skill delivers a fascinating character under pressurized circumstance deserving of applause. Now, I sort of partition my review between Maureen and the rest of the film because I, frankly, came out of the theatre with perplexity smacked across my face. Personal Shopper carries an almost insurmountable level of discomfort because, formally, it twists and contorts genre almost haphazardly, well, within lieu of a psychological thriller. Horror, crime thriller, social realism revolve in and out of the formal elements of the film, almost imposing as much of a spiritual force onto Maureen as the apparitions she chases.
And to say it all feels fluid would be a mistake, but whether or not that is totally a negative thing is still up for my personal debate, and it may be what irks most moviegoers. It doesn't help that these manic revolutions appear in slow-burning pacing. If you are not in perpetual unease, which I was, then you may, instead, be in perpetual disinterest. And I appreciate the unease; I appreciate this notion that Assayas is continuously playing with expectation through the prism of a complex character. Playing with expectation, at the very least, induces a simmering curiosity that drove my interest in the film and when its thrilling components interact so well with the pivotal character it is beauty that manifests itself.
Now, the segments that I am distant of, that necessitates further contemplation, are the extended dialogue scenes which have a bizarre potency of exposition. Some of it works but some of it feels off compared to the visionary uncertainty the film excels at. At least most of these scenes are sullen and quiet, allowing for the words to resonate through the theatre, allowing us to see Stewart embody the vocalization of her reasons, where we see the limitations to her unkempt goals. In then end, the unsettling construction of narrative and the openness of the questions Assayas asks are almost brutally ambiguous, to which the audience needs to decide whether to be swept up by such a tale or to watch it pass on by. I chose to be swept by the story through Stewart's interpretation: where an elusive self treads on an unstable faith; a woman trying to find herself in a world that requires her to be someone else.