Paris is killing Kristen Stewart. At least, it’s killing Maureen Cartwright, the character she inhabits in Olivier Assayas’ new film Personal Shopper. Maureen suffers from a rare heart condition, the same one that recently killed her twin brother Louis. Additionally, her soul-consuming job as a famous actress’ personal shopper isn’t helping matters.
The self-important, cold and preening Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) requests two pairs of $2,000 leather pants but quibbles with Maureen about reimbursing her for expenses. There’s a joylessness in Stewart’s expression, the corners of her mouth perpetually turned down, as she darts around town from one high-end boutique to the next.
But she also has a strange affinity for it. Maureen quickly strides into each store grim yet determined. She touches the garments, feeling the material the way a blind person reads braille, to understand their essence. She’s a fashion witch, having adapted her powers for the 21st century — confirmed by the film’s opening scene in Louis’ enormous house that appears to be emptied of everything except cobwebs, creaking doors and, unsurprisingly, ghosts.
It’s only been a few months since Maureen’s brother died, and she is still in a hardened state of grief. Before the new owners move into his old house, they’ve asked her to spend the night in the house to clear it. Just like Patricia Arquette’s character in the 2005-2011 TV series Medium, Maureen sees and communicates with dead people. To confirm her claim, the director slams doors offscreen and creates an off-kilter flash of light to indicate an otherworldly presence. Ectoplasm and matching Cartier jewel sets, what exactly are Stewart and Assayas up to?
This is their second collaboration after 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria. If Stewart’s role here sounds familiar, it is. In Clouds, she played Valentine, assistant to a famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Unlike Kyra, Maria needs Valentine as a companion, a foil and a bulwark to defend her from a series of grasping hands. The film explored their relationship, its intensity and closeness, in a remote mountain setting. Valentine remains a semi-mysterious, often mystified, figure who is running out of patience with the unending demands of show business.
Apart from the name change, Maureen is a natural extension of that character. Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t exactly a prequel to Personal Shopper, though. It’s a companion film, a fraternal twin, whose glancing resemblance only complements and then enhances a viewing of the other. Much in the same way that Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay of The Best Intentions related to his earlier autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, Clouds also traffics in grief but in a more allusive way — it resolves to stay unresolved. Shopper is grittier (Paris looks dirty). Assayas wants to upend and combine suspense and horror genres. And Stewart is chattier: she explains more of her behavior in the first half hour of the new film than she does in the entirety of Clouds.
The most interesting aspect of both films is the casting of Stewart as a movie star’s assistant. As Bella Swan in the Twilight series of vampire movies, she became a high-paid Hollywood star who reeled from the subsequent onslaught of fandom, public scrutiny and the intrusions of paparazzi. In Clouds, as Stewart plays against her public image, you can detect a barely suppressed ironic smile. With Maureen in Personal Shopper, she takes an evolutionary step forward with her public persona.
Like a character in an Angela Carter fairy tale, Maureen is forbidden from trying on Kyra’s clothing, and she breaks that taboo. The camera watches Stewart as she strips herself down, to her thinnest, most fragile bones. She temporarily rebuilds herself in Kyra’s image, donning a newly purchased dress and shoes, slipping on the identity of a star. Assayas rightly captures the eroticism of that forbidden moment, the sexual liberation Maureen feels when she’s so close to Kyra’s skin, the fantasy of the viewer’s desire for a matinee idol.
But the next day, after the fantasy ends, there are terrible consequences. Trying on the glass slipper casts Maureen out of the palace instead of offering her access to it and the prince. Maureen is a Cinderella in reverse. Stewart, with Assayas’ help, wants to regain her earthly footing, denuded of glamor in a comfortable hoodie and sneakers. Like some angry, lingering ghost from the past, Bella Swan is exorcised and cast out at last.