Kristen Stewart understands reinvention and transformation.
The megastar of the “Twilight” franchise when she was barely out of her teens is now a respected indie actress with a prodigious output. Last year alone, she won praise for her roles in Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” and Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” She also directed a short film, “Come Swim,” that screened at Sundance. Oh, and she hosted “Saturday Night Live,” delivering an opening monologue that affirmed her coming out, while also skewering her own tabloid fame. The actress recalled Donald Trump’s disparaging tweets about her in 2012, when her romance with “Twilight” costar Robert Pattinson ended after news of her affair with then-married “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders.
Stewart deadpanned, “Donald, if you didn’t like me then, you’re probably not going to like me now because I’m hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and I’m, like, so gay, dude.”
But the vehicle that perhaps best explores and exploits Stewart’s dual high-glam and casual-cool personas is “Personal Shopper,” opening here Friday. The movie reunites Stewart with French director Olivier Assayas, who is arguably most responsible for her career renaissance. In Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014), Stewart earned critical hosannas (and a César, France’s equivalent of the Oscar) for playing the personal assistant to an internationally famous actress (Juliette Binoche) and for nearly stealing the film from her formidable costar.
Assayas wrote “Personal Shopper” for Stewart, but both director and star call it a collaboration. “When he works with you, he gives [you] ownership. He’s not forcefully taking you down any path; he’s allowing you to work your own way in,” says Stewart in a telephone interview. “We have the same sensibility, like we know when something’s not honest. We’re not at odds with where a scene is going because there are no ‘shoulds’ in the equation, no place that it’s supposed to go. Where it ends up is where it ends up. We both like to work like that, but you have to be willing to take risks.”
Stewart is onscreen for nearly the entire film as Maureen, a young American in Paris who works as a personal shopper and assistant to Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten), a German supermodel. But Maureen has other reasons for staying in Paris. She’s also a medium and is awaiting a sign from her twin brother Lewis, who died in the ghostly Paris house where she now lives. The twins shared, among other bonds, a congenital heart condition. Maureen is convinced that Lewis will, as agreed, signal to her from the beyond.
“She is a foreigner in every sense of the word. That was interesting for me,” says Stewart. “I didn’t have to answer any background questions for it to make sense; it was like her life is starting over at [the beginning of the film] and she needs to find her bearings and move on.”
Stewart and Assayas seem to revel in meta-moments such as leather-jacketed Maureen coolly buying thousands of dollars worth of clothing and jewelry at high-end fashion stores, hoisting the shopping bags on a scooter and driving through the Paris streets. Alone in Nora’s apartment, Maureen, with a mix of sexual curiosity and subversiveness, tries on the luxurious designer duds that her boss has expressly forbidden her to wear.
“Dealing with the world of fashion has so many sides to it. Maureen’s not entirely disdainful — she’s very much attracted to it — but the duality reflected in her own personality is something that she does not have an easy time owning,” says Stewart. “I’ve had a similar, though less dark, experience with that world. It attracts some of the most creative minds and it’s a way to reveal aspects of yourself that aren’t as obvious to you. At the same time, it attracts the worst people who want to win a popularity contest and are focussed on what they can get out of it. [Maureen] loves and hates it as much as she loves and hates herself.”
In an interview at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where “Personal Shopper” screened, Assayas recalled how impressed he was with Stewart while making “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
“The real-life Kristen is simple, straightforward, funny, smart. I’ve never been interested in her movie-star dimension,” he says. Instead, in both screen collaborations, the celebrity is played by someone else. “That’s the way I use Juliette in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ and the way I use Nora in ‘Personal Shopper’ so, in a way, the celebrity dimension of Kristen is refracted.”
Even though “Personal Shopper” could fairly be called a ghost story, Assayas sees it more as a young woman’s coming of age.
“It’s a portrait of the character at a crucial moment in her life. She is reinventing herself. Maureen is not just mourning the loss of her brother — a twin brother, meaning she lost half of herself — she’s questioning everything she’s been about up to that point, including her own gender. It’s like she lost the masculine half of herself and she’s trying to come to terms with her own femininity.”
He may have tailored “Personal Shopper” to Stewart’s public and private sides, but Assayas doesn’t take credit for shaping Stewart’s edgier screen choices.
‘We’re not at odds with where a scene is going because there are no ‘shoulds’ in the equation. . . . Where it ends up is where it ends up.’
“I was the right person at the right time,” he says. “I always had a sense, with these two films we’ve done, that I was just privileged to be a witness.”Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.