Kristen Stewart’s finest hour: Why ‘Personal Shopper’ is still the best
It’s been a couple years since the release of Olivier Assayas’s mysterious ghost thriller Personal Shopper and we’re still not over it. Not only is it Kristen Stewart’s most outstanding performance to date (from which there are many to choose), but it manages to merge numerous genres with fascinating suspense. It’s a ghost story, a thriller, a drama, all tied together with a realistic portrait of what it’s like to truly grieve the loss of a loved one.
So yes, we might seem like obsessive superfans of a movie that’s way past its release date, but we don’t care and neither do you. That’s why you’re here, right? Here are the reasons Personal Shopper is just the best. Spoiler alert!
The narrative of the movie centers around Stewart’s character Maureen – an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper for a demanding celebrity boss. However, it soon becomes evident she’s got an ulterior motive, looking for a signal from her deceased twin brother in the Parisian house they grew up in after he promised to send a sign if he passed before her.
While the initial scenes point towards a ghost story – which always has the potential to be a complete yawnfest – what’s intriguing is the sinister depiction of her brother’s apparition is minor to the plot. And while it does feature, the movie’s tension is created through a separate yet also intertwined trauma based on a mysterious figure who starts texting Maureen via an unknown number.
Instead of using jump scares to build the story, Assayas takes a completely different route with the film, making Maureen’s grief and the subsequent (and may we add, messed up) relationship with the mystery texter the focus to cause tension and leave the audience questioning: is it Maureen’s own spiteful id that caused all of this?
The intensity of texting
Upon the release of Personal Shopper, Assayas noted how Kristen joked, “You’re aware my co-stars on this film are my thumbs.” A significant chunk of the film – and a significant chunk of the intensity – comes from Maureen’s bizarre relationship with a mystery person who starts texting her out of the blue.
At first she thinks the messages are from her brother, but as they become increasingly menacing and flirtatious, the relationship shifts and the anonymous new influencer urges Maureen to indulge in her most forbidden fantasies.
Throughout this relationship, which culminates with a dead body and a police shootout, Maureen is entirely devoted to her smartphone. This is where Assayas’s genius lies, as he manages to perfectly depict that anxiety we’ve all felt while texting.
When Maureen shows nervous worry as a new message arrives or chews her nails in anticipation as the typing motion bubbles away (she can’t even take her mind off it while working), she’s acting out something we’ve all felt whether it be during an argument with a significant other or conversing with a new date.
The texting also brings some welcome scares to the movie, particularly the Hitchcockian scene in which she turns the phone on to find a backlog of texts mounting up, bringing danger right to her front door (or so we think).
Kristen Stewart’s outstanding performance
While she’s playing an assistant, Stewart is the star of this film. Hailed as her best performance to date, she does an unparalleled job of depicting a woman stuck in purgatory over the death of her brother. It’s the minor details that really count here – the finger flutters and panicked hair sweeps, suggesting her unease in numerous situations.
“And there’s a cough that punctuates a line about the ‘presence’ she sensed in her brother’s former home,” wrote Wendy Ide in The Guardian, “It’s a line that could have had a camped-up, spooky quality but the cough grounds it, makes it banal.”
When faced with what most would find scary situations, Stewart acts her most calm. It’s the day-to-day life her character Maureen finds the most difficult, and it’s through Stewart’s facial expressions, body language, and voice tone that she conveys this so well to the viewers.
Her subtlety, the offering of emotions without any outlandish display (take note of the scene in which the apparition taunts Maureen in the old house), and her angular awkwardness are all what push Stewart to the forefront of her generation’s great performers.
It’s for these reasons Personal Shopper is and will remain one of the great films of our time – an incredible ghost story that will haunt you through everything other than the ghost part.