Critic's Notebook: Let's Start Appreciating Kristen Stewart as a Great Actress

Personal Shopper Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Personal Shopper Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016

Exploring the tension between the two sides of the actress’ persona — glamour queen and reclusive tomboy — Stewart gives her most fascinating, thrillingly physical performance yet in 'Personal Shopper.'

Kristen Stewart is in almost every scene of the new Paris-set ghost movie, Personal Shopper, the most daring film French director Olivier Assayas has made in decades. It was a role written especially for her, and one only she could pull off. Who else could get away with saying, toothpick in her mouth as she sits in a French café, “It’s extremely difficult to find a portal into the spirit world. That’s just the way it is"? Stewart grounds the high-flying absurd.

The French have led the rehabilitation of Stewart's reputation from teen genre queen to critical darling. Two years ago she became the first American actress to win a César award (often called the French Oscar) for her performance as the assistant to a mercurial European star (Juliette Binoche) in Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. She won numerous American critics' group awards for that role, and earned nearly as much praise again this year for her part as a young Montana lawyer in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. The New York Times' film critic A.O. Scott even went as far as declaring her “the new Robert De Niro.”

That might be taking things a little too far. But just what it is that makes Stewart so notable, so singular and so exciting as a performer right now can be seen to an extreme in Personal Shopper. There’s the balancing act mentioned above — her ability to anchor the supernatural in believable human behavior and emotion. (This was key to what first brought her enormous fame in the Twilight films.) She’s also been noted for her naturalistic acting style in these recent art house performances, though it’s not really naturalism; it's more hyper-naturalism. And that makes sense: She’s a movie star pretending to be regular women.

But there's something more. In both Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart plays assistants to celebrities. This gives her a chance to explore both her savviness about the industry and her sometimes palpable discomfort with it (she has made every effort to build her career outside mainstream studio moviemaking in the years since Twilight).

Clouds of Sils Maria is a classic “persona swap” film, in which two women’s identities seem to switch places or merge. It's modeled after another film about an actress and her caretaker, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. By the end of Clouds, it's become unclear whether Stewart’s assistant character ever existed, or if she was merely a figment of the Binoche character's imagination.

Personal Shopper takes a similar conceit even further. Stewart again plays the right-hand woman to a celebrity, Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten). But what makes the performance so fascinating is that the conflict in the story is not between the two women — it's between the two tug-of-warring sides of Stewart, and of Stewart’s character Maureen: the glamorous movie star and the moody tomboy. It's no coincidence that her best scenes unfold in a room alone, as Maureen talks to herself.

It’s this duality that defines Stewart, and Assayas shrewdly seems to have centered the film around it. Maureen gets paid in cash to take Kyra’s blank checks and buy high-fashion clothes for her to appear at events in. (Maureen later takes to Google to see how they looked.) In trying to explain this job to other people, Maureen says that Kyra is very high-profile and can’t do normal things, like shopping, on her own. Some of the designer salespeople ask Maureen if she wants to try on the beautiful things she purchases. But it’s forbidden by Kyra, who is described by all as a pain-in-the-ass.

Someone starts sending Maureen mysterious text messages. Is it the ghost of her recently deceased twin brother? Or a man she recently met? In any case, Maureen starts writing this stranger things about herself, sending secrets off into the technological ether, as many of us do in our everyday lives.

“Do you want to be someone else?” the phantom texter asks. She does.

“Who?" She doesn’t know.

But eventually Maureen confesses that she wants to do the forbidden: wear Kyra’s clothes. She doesn’t want to be Kyra, but she knows she has the potential to look like a star. When she finally does slip into a stunner of a sparkly dress, with sequins reflecting the light like specters, she looks exquisite but feels phony. “I feel ridiculous, it's not me,” she types into her phone.

Stewart has a beautiful face, often petulant with a rabbit-mouth and a look like a 1930s movie star. But she communicates mostly with her body. In one scene, she decides to try on her boss’ high-fashion leather harness. She goes from a hunched posture in jeans and a baggy sweater to wearing this harness and nothing else but underwear, the lines of her body suddenly appearing as abstract shapes: spine, ribs, shoulders. It’s gorgeous. She sighs at the sight. But her nakedness is too much, too raw. So she adds a sheer bra and her posture suddenly, though subtly, changes. She's no longer moping — she's sashaying, with only a few small shifts in the way she moves and holds herself. Then she builds, adding the dress that goes with the harness, and is transformed. She masturbates.

This is a persona-swap film where there are two women in one (personal shopper or persona shopper?). Clothes in film have rarely been treated with such reverence as art objects and as crucial devices of cinema language. What is great cinema after all, but abstraction and cool clothes?

And Stewart doesn't just wear the clothes in Personal Shopper; she uses them as tools — snapping the harness against her skin, slinking into a leather jacket. But whether she's dressed up or down, boldly flirting or retreating into herself, she's always the same casual, androgynous-glamorous force of nature. And in this way, perhaps she is the new De Niro. He has incredible range but, from 1900 to Meet the Parents to Casino, there is almost always something immutable about him. Stewart may not have an Oscar yet, but like De Niro, she's a classic American actor who seems, more than ever, to be in competition only with herself.