Kristen Stewart is the whole point of "Personal Shopper." And to me, who has increasingly found her to be electrifying onscreen, that makes the movie magnetic against the odds.
To the substantial cadre of moviegoers who dislike her rather intensely onscreen, that will make the film easy to avoid. When director Olivier Assayas' film was shown at a critics' screening at the Cannes Film Festival, it was booed. When it was shown to festival audiences not long after, it was given a long standing ovation.
I think you can ascribe both reactions to what we might call the "Kristen Stewart effect."
Both reactions are needlessly melodramatic. I'm solidly on this film's side because I think Stewart is the movies' new Jodie Foster. And that's no accident. Both Stewart and Foster started as child actresses. When Stewart was 12, she played Foster's daughter in "Panic Room."
Stewart picked her hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" to come out as a lesbian. Foster did it years ago at an award show. A lesbian film critic recently called them "Psychic twins separated by 30 years," which isn't a bad way to characterize them.
What I have always loved about Stewart that I've also loved about Foster onscreen during her career is that you can never catch her in the act of acting. Even as a child actress in a cutesy Disney film about a girl and her lion called "Napoleon and Samantha," Foster seemed incapable of uttering a word of dialogue that wasn't believable. She and a movie camera were born to coexist in the same universe.
Stewart is like that, too. And that, no doubt, is why writer/director Assayas directed Stewart with Juliette Binoche in "The Clouds of Sils Maria" and was so impressed that he immediately wrote "Personal Shopper" for her.
I believe it. I can understand a film director wanting to write a film for her, even under sharp deadline pressure. She is a riveting film presence, however somber. Regardless of her actual sexuality in the world, her Foster-like refusal to convey easy sexuality in any conventional way registers, in its rebelliousness, as visibly "sexy" in its own way.
And now the bad news -- especially for me. As much as I've always liked Stewart -- whether in that "Twilight" bilge or "On the Road," or "Adventureland" or "Snow White and the Huntsman" -- two of my least favorite subjects are fashion and the spirit world.
In "Personal Shopper," they combine for a kind of annoying twofer. Stewart plays Maureen, a personal assistant to a major female celebrity of much beauty and unspecified occupation (fashion model?). Maureen's major job is to buy or borrow clothes for her employer to wear for specific occasions. She knows her employer's taste that well.
There's one caveat: She's been instructed never to try them on first.
As if that weren't enough, Maureen is something of a medium who seems to invite lots of communication with the spirit world. So was Maureen's twin brother, Lewis, who died recently of a heart condition both shared.
Maureen and Lewis made a pact in life to affirm their belief in ghosts by the first to die of the two of them sending the other a sign from the spirit world.
Wait. We're not finished yet. Maureen, while running around doing all her personal shopping, is stalked on her cell phone by someone who seduces her into doing that verboten thing: trying on her employer's clothes.
All of which is, undoubtedly, slyly erotic for those with a feel for clothes and fashion but to some of us, is a fetish for dry goods no matter who does it.
Ghosts do, in fact, float in and out of the movie, even giving it a jolt or two. An actual murder shows up but the movie's resolution of it seems very much the kind of thing that a besotted writer/director would scribble on the back of a napkin because he wanted to continue working with an electrifying film actress.
In which case, I'll give Assayas credit for taste.
His emotionally minimalist actress is extraordinary to watch. The story he's compelling her to animate doesn't really fit her, though.
She's so good that just by trying it on she makes the movie watchable but it probably belonged on someone else's frame and in someone else's closet.
If not on the rack somewhere in a store room, never to see the light of day.
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Nora von Waldstatten, Lars Eidinger, Sigird Bouaziz
Director: Olivier Assayas
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rating: R for language, sexuality, nudity, disturbing violent images
The Lowdown: Grieving young celebrity's assistant is stalked while searching for the spirit of her dead twin brother.