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Review: 'Personal Shopper' changes the conversation on Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart’s seeming indifference works as Maureen Cartwright, employed by a demanding supermodel-designer. French writer-director Olivier Assayas grasps her essence, her twitchy elusiveness. 
IFC Films
Published Mar. 30, 2017

Time for a reassessment of Kristen Stewart, a divisive actor with a penchant for appearing detached from everything around her in a movie.

Like many viewers — not her devoted Twilight fans — I've often thought Stewart's withdrawn, uneasy persona got in the way of her characters. Yet two striking performances directed by Olivier Assayas and several middling movies in which she still shined puts Stewart in the discussion of her generation's finest actors.

Personal Shopper is Stewart's current collaboration with Assayas, following 2014's Clouds of Sils Maria signaling her emergence with a Cannes acting prize. There's always something vaguely European about Stewart's seeming indifference, so a French filmmaker may have an advantage in grasping her essence, her twitchy elusiveness.

Stewart is practically the whole show in Personal Shopper, on screen throughout, largely left to convey her character's thoughts in extended passages of silence. It's a ghost story not built upon jump scares but creeping dread that gets boring at times. Not Stewart's performance, though.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, an American in Paris employed as a personal shopper for a demanding supermodel-designer (Nora von Waldstatten). Maureen dutifully picks up and drops off her client's fashion and jewelry, sometimes trying glamor on for size. Notice how Stewart's posture and expressions change in these moments, subtly conveying Maureen's needy side. She sorely wants to be someone other than herself. That's the connecting tissue of Stewart's best roles.

Maureen also has a psychic gift shared with her late twin brother, Lewis, who died in Paris of a heart defect. Maureen has the same medical issue. They promised each other that whoever died first would contact the other from beyond. Paris seems like the right place for that to happen.

Assayas puts a ghost in the machine, specifically Maureen's ever-present cellphone that begins receiving messages from "Unknown," who seems to be her brother. Or could it be someone else from the netherworld with darker plans in mind.

That's the framework of countless ghost stories that Assayas' screenplay attempts to make more metaphysical than a simple haunting. There's a subtext of social media as a disembodying force that doesn't quite click. The more Maureen chases her brother's ghost, the more she's cut off from the living. Obsession in solitude, where Stewart does much of her finest work.

Personal Shopper is wildly imperfect, wandering like Maureen through surroundings matching her dark, curious mood. Dead ends abound with scenes running long then abruptly dropping their subjects. Thrills aren't part of the bargain unless Stewart's intense vulnerability counts. Now more than ever, it should.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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