The Daily Stream: Personal Shopper Finds The Beauty And Anxiety Of A Different Kind Of Ghost Story

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

Movie: "Personal Shopper"

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu, AMC+

The Pitch: After becoming the first female actor from the United States to win a César Award for her performance in the tremendous "Clouds of Sils Maria," Kristen Stewart reteamed with director Olivier Assayas for the even more entrancing "Personal Shopper," which would earn Assayas the Best Director award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (in a tie with Cristian Mungiu for "Graduation"). Stewart stars as Maureen, a young woman who works in Paris as a personal shopper to a wealthy celebrity (the reason for her fame is vague). She is also a medium, as was her brother who recently died from a genetic heart condition that Maureen also has. They made a promise to each other that whoever died first would send a sign from beyond the grave. One day, Maureen starts receiving texts from an unknown number that may or may not have a supernatural origin to them, which she is both terrified by and finds undeniably intriguing.

Why it's essential viewing

Kristen Stewart finally scored her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín's chilly, specter-infused film "Spencer." While this is the first time she managed some major respect from mainstream Hollywood in her post-"Twilight" career, her work for the last decade or so has been absolutely stellar. She has continuously shown a unique ability to stay completely in the moment to the point where she almost never feels like she is acting. The way she weaves through the daily lives of the people she plays never comes across as anything less than completely real. For me, "Personal Shopper," her other ghostly picture, stands as her crowning achievement. Olivier Assayas wrote the part specifically for Stewart, and it is designed to maximize every strength she has as a performer.

Stewart thrives on characters with a nervy, almost manic energy. It's a similar essence that I find in Michael Keaton, though he swerved that into mannered comedy and Stewart chose to apply that to naturalism. Maureen is a character pummeled by anxiety. What weighs on her most heavily is obviously the death of her brother. Her grief is all-consuming and dictates almost everything she chooses to do in life. Not only is she dealing with the loss of the person closest to her in life, but she has the same condition that could possibly end her life as well, even if her brother's death was highly unlikely. To avoid the same fate, her doctor says that she should not have very strong emotions. That is tough to do when you are waiting for your dead brother to send you a message from the afterlife, helping out a colleague with their own haunting, and are in the middle of receiving text messages from someone who seems to see every move you make that you aren't sure is alive. Also, she is incredibly unhappy with her job, working for a woman completely uncaring and ungrateful for the work Maureen does for her. She will not even let her try on the clothes Maureen goes out to buy, despite being roughly the same size. Maureen is going through a lot.

Piling all of that on a character could be too much for some actors, but Stewart thrives playing people burdened by the world. From the way she carries her shoulders to all of the patented Kristen Stewart tics, Maureen feels like someone uncomfortable at all times in her life. While that could become monotonous, Stewart imbues Maureen with a key factor: curiosity. She is not someone who accepts it when life knocks her down. No, she is always investigating, which is why she finds the mysterious texts fascinating rather than utterly repulsive (which is how I would respond). She finds the unknown a comfortable place to be in because the known world hasn't done her any favors. The texts may be creepy, but they give her an outlet to act out as another person, someone adventurous, daring, and risky. It perfectly mirrors Stewart's own preferences to find films that make her uncomfortable. This is one of those perfect marriages where the actor and the material are perfect for one another.

How to make text messages scary

While Kristen Stewart may be at the center of almost every frame of "Personal Shopper" and its biggest asset, Olivier Assayas as a writer and director also is firing on cylinders. Shooting on beautiful 35mm, he and frequent cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (one of the greatest DPs working today) find this amazing balance of scenes lit completely naturally and scenes, tinged with the supernatural, achieve this gorgeous, hazy glow. The ability to find the right shimmer in the darkness of a haunted house creates some truly stunning images.

But what I really want to spotlight about Assayas' construction of the film is how he builds tension. Since texting became a regular part of our lives, filmmakers have been desperately struggling to figure out ways to make the act of looking down at your phone and typing cinematic. How do they show the text on screen? What is the vernacular of the text language? Can you believably connect two individuals without them directly speaking to one another? Assayas has the added challenge of trying to build suspense and terror out of text that inherently has no tone. Yet, he does it.

Reaction shots are key. Firstly, they have the incredibly expressive face of Kristen Stewart to work with. Problem number one: solved. You ask her to convey whether she finds what she just read upsetting, confusing, or even a turn on, and she is able to do it, often combining contradictory feelings at the same time. Meanwhile, Assayas and editor Marion Monnier always know not just what was the right shot emotionally but how long each reaction needs to last. Texting is a game of call and response, and they know how to milk the eagerness of getting that response. They also know when to ramp up the speed of the texts to where you can't properly process what you just read. The climactic texting scene, where the texter claims to be inching ever nearer to Maureen's apartment, is as tense as the greatest Tom Cruise stunt you can imagine. Also, every single message sent reads like an actual text you would receive. No unnecessary slang or abbreviations to seem hip or anything like that. All the language is clear and precise, which can make things even scarier if you aren't completely sure of the intent of a message. I beg filmmakers to take lessons here about texting on screen. This form of communication isn't going anywhere, and more movies need to better understand our evolving connectivity.

A ghost story for those not into horror

I wish I was a horror fan. It is a massively popular genre with a dedicated fan base, and being someone who writes about movies online, it would certainly make me more in tune with what people get excited about cinematically. It has nothing to do with not wanting to be scared. On the contrary, I relish the times I do get scared in a movie. Frankly, I just often find myself struggling to connect with stories about ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and demons. So, when filmmakers take the conventions of a horror film and turn them on their heads to find a new way of telling these stories, I greatly appreciate it. With films like "Personal Shopper" or its 2017 horror-adjacent drama companion "A Ghost Story" from David Lowery, I can finally find my way into these supernatural stories. I can connect with the pain, the sadness, and the longing when the outright goal of these otherworldly presences is to terrify the lead character.

That is not to say horror fans won't be into the vibe of "Personal Shopper." Olivier Assayas crafted a rich, textured film that gives you the intimate indie character drama and finds the thrills one would hope to see in a ghost story in its own, unique way. It is a singular film I find myself returning to quite often. Now that a great number of people have finally come around on Kristen Stewart, I ask you to please go back and see the truly wonderful films she has been making, such as "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Certain Women," and "Still Alice." On the top of that list, put "Personal Shopper."