Let’s go back in time about 8 years: as the Twilight movies reach peak cultural saturation, Kristen Stewart becomes a full-blown tabloid celebrity and is quickly memetized by the internet as the girl with a vacant stare, a tendency to bite her lower lip, and such a bland personality that it’s a wonder that Edward/Jacob/whoever want to fight over her. So it may surprise my college friends to hear that there’s a modest cinephile movement brewing—at least, in some corners—to claim her as a terrific talent. She recently set a record as the first American actress to win a César (the French Oscars), for her performance in Olivier Assayas’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). And Assayas himself—an auteur’s auteur who has had a standing invite to Cannes since the 90s—called her nothing less than “the best actress of her generation.” Last year, the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn did a series on Stewart called “Bad Reputation”, an in-joke to the time Stewart played Joan Jett in The Runaways (2010) and a gentle encouragement for all the New York cinema hipsters to take the Twilight girl more seriously. I dipped into the series, and left feeling not that Stewart was a great actress, but that, at best, she’d been cast by some very talented directors. Film acting is a funny thing. The legendary director Robert Bresson, for instance, was famous for referring to his actors as “models”; that is, he picked performers, professional or non-professional, who had a look he could build a movie around. I don’t think Stewart can convincingly emote or consistently disappear into a character, but she does have a look. (Her best role—or at least, the one that most plays to her strengths—is in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016)).
Now Assayas and Stewart have teamed up again for Personal Shopper, a film that got a divisive reaction at Cannes last year (some boos, some applause, and a top prize from the jury) and has quietly slipped into American theaters for the curious and the confused. And to be honest, I’m not sure the material is suited to either of them, even if it’s brave of them to try. The film is something of an arthouse ghost story, though most of all it exists to confound genre labels. Film is an art form where seemingly unrelated elements can be placed side by side and allowed to play off each other in coy, thematic ways. And so Stewart’s character gets two storylines: in the first, she’s the titular “shopper” (an invisible, poorly treated assistant) for a wealthy socialite in Paris, and in the second (stay with me here), she’s a medium trying to contact the soul of her dead twin brother. What do the two have to do with each other? The movie and its details offer food for thought, certainly—like the contrasts/parallels between hunting for ghosts and sending personal text messages to an anonymous stranger, or between being dead and working at the fringe of the red carpet, or between today’s hottest fashion and an unknown artist who stands the test of time. But Stewart comes across as fussy when she explains the spirit world, as if she doesn’t believe this bullshit herself, and Assayas’s ghost story itself spends most of the movie in limbo, somewhere between the compelling ridiculousness of a good B-movie and the serious tragedy that allows high-minded horror to pull it off. So the film is most successful when Stewart’s character is enigmatic rather than expressive, and when Assayas leaves you wondering which direction the film will go next, as it moves from horror to melodrama to meta-meditation to thriller and back to horror again. For those who like movies with details, it can keep you guessing right up to the moment you realize it leaves you with less than it wants.