In Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart proves herself at home in European art-house cinema

Olivier Assayas' new film asks what happens when someone builds their life around the superficial. Yet Stewart is commandingly deep.

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Kristen Stewart vanished into thin air like a ghost at the end of Olivier Assayas’s 2014 film, Clouds of Sils Maria. She was revelatory as a PA providing succour to a formidable but insecure actress, played by Juliette Binoche; when she disappeared from the story without explanation, we felt as bereft as Binoche did. Stewart’s second collaboration with Assayas, Personal Shopper, is a companion piece to the first. A chiller shot in the remote, anaesthetised style of Antonioni, it may be more art-house than haunted house but it’s naggingly eerie all the same.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, another outsider orbiting the celebrity world and paying the price for that alienated existence. As a shopper to the stars, she dashes across Europe to fetch this snazzy dress or those stiletto-heeled boots for a ­supermodel called Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). She is forbidden from wearing the items herself, but as with the rules in a fairy tale (leave the ball after midnight and your gown will turn to rags), this one is destined to be broken.

Maureen’s identity is nebulous at best. Riding her motorbike through Paris, she is reduced to a blur. When she arrives early at a photo shoot, she is asked to be a stand-in for Kyra, which rather sums her up. A Vogue journalist tells her she has “a stupid job”, perhaps the ultimate pot/kettle situation.

When she isn’t trawling fashion houses for haute couture, Maureen exercises her supernatural powers. She is one of those unusual people who is both a size-zero and a medium. She is now awaiting a message from her late twin brother, who was killed by the same heart defect that afflicts her. The siblings agreed that if one of them died, the other would get in touch from the afterlife. Naturally, Maureen is the real ghost of the film, her pale form haunting Kyra’s apartment. The prospects of her conversing with the dead seem slim when she can scarcely make contact with the living.

Communication in the film is largely electronic. Maureen doesn’t exchange a word in person with Kyra. The only way to reach even her own boyfriend is by Skype. The one meaningful interaction in the film is an extended text conversation between Maureen and a stalker who bombards her with messages while she runs a nugatory errand to London on Eurostar. The texts veer from the sinister to the solicitous (“Do you want to be someone else?”) and it appears that they are coming from beyond the grave. But can ghosts use mobile phones? And if so, aren’t the data-roaming charges prohibitively steep?

Technology has killed off certain kinds of plot but Assayas uses its depersonalising influence here to express dislocation. The sequence showing Maureen sending and receiving texts doesn’t sound as if it would be especially cinematic, but the expertise lies in the carefully calibrated editing and choices of shot. Unbearable suspense arises from that familiar moment when a phone is switched back on only for the backlog of messages to arrive in quick succession, like a horror story accelerating out of control.

Like those actors who only come to life when they’re in character, Maureen is at her most clearly defined while wearing another person’s clothes. Yet even here, the outfits can’t help commenting on her vulnerability. (Take a bow, Jürgen Doering, costume designer.) Intended to serve as disguise or escape, they end up exposing more than they conceal. When Maureen steps into sheer underwear and a bondage harness, it’s like a fabric X-ray to add to those literal X-rays (an ultrasound, a security scan) that she undergoes elsewhere in the film.

Whether anything remains in the soul of someone whose life is built around the ephemeral and the superficial is a point the picture leaves moot. The irony is that Stewart herself is commandingly deep. Give her a scene of plain exposition and she renders it natural with her halting voice and twitchy gestures. Ask her to evoke isolation, as she does in the final shot, and she will stare down the lens with all the desolate panic of the last woman on Earth.

Stewart is one of those American stars, like Jane Fonda in Godard’s Tout va bien or Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger, who have entrusted their persona to a European director and reaped the rewards. Assayas has taken one of the most scrutinised, sought-after actors of the modern age and demoted her, twice, from queen to pawn. Moving her to the outskirts of the board, he offers us a saner view on the madness and malaise of a star’s everyday life. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain