NYFF Film Review: “Personal Shopper” Is a Kristen Stewart Showstopper

personal_shopper2016 New York Film Festival: At this point, it seems like a safe bet that Kristen Stewart is capable of making just about anything captivating. For a good portion of “Personal Shopper,” she texts with a potential ghost. Sounds boring, right? Well, at times it threatens to be, but Stewart pushes through. Writer/director Olivier Assayas clearly trusts his actress, and he should, especially since his own work leaves a bit to be desired here. Without her, this review would be a very different one. The sporadic pans from the Cannes Film Festival are understandable, but this appears to be a misunderstood movie. It’s a mood piece, as much as it is a ghost story.

“Personal Shopper” is a bumpy road at times, no doubt about that. It meanders along in a way that threatens to derail it on more than one occasion. Without Stewart’s performance, Assayas might have lost his audience. He does give her a standout sequence here and there to help, though, so it’s not all on her shoulders. A sequence on a train as she texts with a potentially sinister presence is way more riveting than one would ever expect. Assayas and Stewart made something special with “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and while this isn’t on that level, “Personal Shopper” is still well worth a recommendation.

The film centers on Maureen (Stewart), an assistant to A-lister Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), picking up clothes and accessories for her throughout Europe. She’s also a medium on the side, paying particular interest to the potential spirit of her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They shared the same heart defect and promised that whichever passed first would contact the other. At his creepy old house, Maureen encounters a presence, though she’s not certain if it’s Lewis or not. As the spirit follows her, it begins communicating through technology and challenging her malaise. It all builds toward a conclusion that is very unexpected.

personal-shopper-3This might be one of Stewart’s biggest accomplishments to date. She’s given better performances, though she’s great here, but this is basically a one woman show. No one else has much screen time or leaves much of an impact. Stewart, though, is electric. This continues a rather unimpeachable string of work that she’s been doing, both here at NYFF this year and just in general. An Oscar nomination won’t come for this performance, but she’s well on her way. Supporting players, in addition to von Waldstätten, are few and far between. They include Sigrid Bouaziz, Lars Eidinger, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin and more, but they all pale in comparison to Stewart.

Assayas allows himself to go a bit off the rails in “Personal Shopper.” A very loose script and direction that mostly just focuses on his lead actress is risky behavior. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux puts the camera on her and lingers there. Luckily, Assayas’ actress is doing yeoman’s work, so she saves the day. As much as I credit him for letting Stewart just own the screen, you can’t help but wish he’d done other things differently. Some dodgy CGI and a less than satisfying ending are as rough as the train sequences are quietly unsettling. Assayas is hit or miss, though again, his actress is note perfect.

Flaws aside, “Personal Shopper” is unique enough and curious enough to wind up working. Mostly, it’s due to Stewart, but Assayas is smart enough to know that and play to that strength. He builds this flick around her and ultimately reaps the benefits. Undeniably a lesser entry into Assayas’ catalog, it stands out as one of Stewart’s most interesting works to date. You just can’t help but be impressed by every decision that she makes. This is a brave performance, both physically and mentally. If “Personal Shopper” represents the further evolution of her career, there’s plenty of reason to be very excited.

“Personal Shopper” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 7 and open in theaters on March 10, 2017.

GRADE: (★★★)