Personal Shopper is the first Kristen Stewart film to be released after she "officially" came out on Saturday Night Live, although she had done so at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. It is a test-case of whether a famously out actor can still succeed as an expressive artist.
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Mystery happens to be the film's subject. Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, the female twin of a male who recently died. Both siblings had psychic abilities, so Maureen sometimes works as a clairvoyant. That's her night job. Her day job is buying fabulous clothes and jewelry for an egotistical actress. She hates the work. (Buzzing around Paris on a motorbike with a half-million dollars' worth of couture in a shopping bag is such a drag). She can't decide if she wants to continue shopping, doing private seances or join a distant boyfriend at his boring job in the Sultanate of Oman.
Do you care? Does Kristen really care? Does French director Olivier Assayas give amerde?
Assayas latches on to the fame and box-office power Stewart achieved as Bella in the Twilight movies. Their first film together, The Clouds of Sils Maria (popular only with critics) caught Stewart's perpetual bad mood; she sulked and pouted in Assayas' art-movie update of All About Eve--Chloe Grace Moretz's petulant teen-idol role out-sassed both Stewart and Juliette Binoche.
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Assayas clearly wanted to go further in his exploration/exploitation of Stewart, so Personal Shopper takes advantage of her tabloid status as a sexually ambiguous star. Expatriate Maureen, who has lost the Yankee work ethic, not only seems jealous of her celebrity-employer (Nora van Waldstatten) but she suffers a psychosexual jealousy familiar as queer confusion: Does she want to be her boss, or fuck her?
This leads to the film's best scene when Stewart disrobes, displaying a lovely boyish body (lesbians looking for hooters better stick with Catherine McKinnon), slips into couture and masturbates.
If queer confusion is the point, Assayas is not the director to depict it. Lacking camp shamelessness, he prioritizes Stewart's butch recalcitrance. Pedro Almodovar might have paraded Maureen in swanky gowns or perhaps some provocative men's wear--Channing Tatum's tuxedo, Trevante Rhodes' jock strap. But Assayas gets existential, toying with spiritualism and ennui instead of settling on one idea. Is Maureen a closet psychopath involved in her employer's murder? Or a millennial malcontent who deceives everyone who trusts her?
Stewart can be a compelling actress (watch her in the first Twilight movie, Still Alice, Certain Women and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk). Too bad Assayas' indie art-movie loses Stewart's basic appeal--not her gay identity but, as Twilight dramatized, her raw, tumescent emotions.
It's unlikely that Twilight fans will reject Stewart's personal sexual candor. One way to secure their following is to clarify everygirl's romantic fantasies, not give-in to mystery and tabloid supposition.
Maybe Personal Shopper should have been about a Kardashian go-fers--or the pleasure of a shopping spree. Assayas's ghost story overcomplicates everything Stewart embodies. The Maureen role is half-materialistic, half-bored. She's half-a person and that's not what's wanted from a movie star.