On the face of it, Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart make an unlikely pair. He’s an acclaimed French director influenced by Robert Bresson and the Marxist theorist Guy Debord. She’s the American actress from “Twilight.” Yet they’ve complemented each other over two films now, 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” and this year’s “Personal Shopper.” In both movies, Stewart plays a woman who lives on the outskirts of celebrity culture, not at its center — an irony that may explain what the director and the actress get out of their symbiotic relationship.
Where “Clouds of Sils Maria” featured Stewart as a famous actress’ assistant, “Personal Shopper” casts her in the title role of Maureen, a young American who works for the supermodel Kyra Gellman (Nora Von Waldstätten). Maureen spends her days shopping in the ritziest arrondissements of Paris, but it’s still a menial job with little glamour and no meaning. She declines an offer to work with Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a writer at Men’s Vogue, because she thinks fashion magazines are shallow and corrupt. “So what?” Ingo says encouragingly. “You already have a stupid job.”
Maureen has more important things on her mind: namely, the afterlife, and whether it exists. Maureen is a medium, as was her twin, Lewis, who died of a genetic heart defect. (She has it, too.) When Maureen isn’t picking out Kyra’s high heels and harnesses, she spends her time at an old house that might be haunted by Lewis’ spirit. Meanwhile, she begins receiving anonymous phone texts that are both deeply personal and fairly menacing. If they’re not from her dead brother, then who?
As in her previous movie with Assayas, Stewart bristles with intelligence beneath the facade of an aimless millennial. She’s the perfect stand-in for Assayas — he wrote the script specifically for her — giving him a young person’s view of our cultural “now” while allowing him to coolly observe its weird mix of fame, media and technology. (Many of the movie’s most intense scenes involve just Stewart and her iPhone.) As for the actress, well, she gets to act again after four years in the glare of “Twilight.”
With its odd blend of genres — psychological thriller, plus supernatural mystery — “Personal Shopper” isn’t completely successful, but it’s another intriguing experiment from one of the oddest and most interesting partnerships in the movies today.