The artist believed her paintings to be séances and she claim to paint directly through her spirit. She experimented automatic drawing and conceptualized spiritual experiences through geometrical forms.
Stewart shines in the polarizing festival standout Personal Shopper, as well as in Woody Allen’s Cafe Society
by Stephanie Zacharek
If there are any old-school craftspeople who still carve wooden
figureheads for grand ships, they owe it to the world to make one in
Kristen Stewart’s image. Her profile, so strong and proud, looks like
something not of our time, which might be what makes Stewart seem so
modern: It’s as if she’s skipped over a few eras and come directly to
ours, to try on our designers’ clothes, to amuse herself with our
technology, to experience the joy and comfort of wearing a pair of
beat-up Chuck Taylors. She fits right in even as she pushes ahead,
parting the waves as she goes. Nearly everyone wants to see what she’ll
do next—an enviable place for an actress to be.
Stewart has two films here at Cannes, playing very different roles, and she’s terrific in both. In Woody Allen’s Café Society,
she plays Vonnie, a down-to-earth secretary in ’30s Hollywood, a
transplant who’d at one time hoped to set the town on fire but who now,
sensibly, isn’t sure she cares so much. She’s being wooed by a more
recent newcomer, played by a tic-ridden Jesse Eisenberg, though,
unbeknownst to him, she’s already having an affair with his uncle (and
her boss), played by Steve Carell. Vonnie is too good for both of them,
though everybody except Allen seems to know it: When we first meet her,
she’s coasting around town in sporty, practical playsuits, her silky
voice like a zephyr softening the harsh LA light. She disappears for
much of the movie and then reemerges a changed woman, draped in diamonds
and furs, a transformation that feels forced and, worse yet, like a
rebuke—Allen’s way of reminding us how fickle womankind can be.
Actors clamor to work with Allen, though it’s hard to understand why:
For years, he’s rarely brought out the best in them, moving them around
like wooden figures in his stagey tableaus. Still, Stewart can’t be
Woodyized. She survives Café Society not just intact but
triumphant. Yet her real victory at this year’s festival is won in
Olivier Assayas’s superb, supremely spooky ghost story Personal Assistant.
The film is disquietingly effective: I saw it at a nighttime screening;
it followed me back to my hotel room. I sat up for while writing work
emails, then shifted to personal ones. Around 2 a.m., I had a DM chat
with a friend. It was well past time to turn out the lights. I was just
Personal Assistant is unlike any other Assayas film, though
if you know and love his work, you’ll spot familiar touches: Stewart, in
a helmet and sumptuously worn-in leather aviator’s jacket, tooling
around Paris on a motorbike, is an image borrowed from Assayas’s early
masterpiece Irma Vep. In Personal Shopper, Stewart’s
character is Maureen, a woman with a seemingly cool job that she truly
hates: As a way of earning enough money to live in Paris, she works as a
personal shopper to a very busy French actress—she’s so busy she’s
almost vaporous. We rarely see her, and Maureen doesn’t, either.
Maureen spends her days dashing from one atelier to another, picking
up extraordinary, and extremely expensive, garments for her boss to
wear. But her real preoccupation is communication with the dead: She’s a
medium, a person attuned to picking up signals from a beyond that most
of us can’t even begin to comprehend. When an acquaintance tells her
about Hilma af Klimt, an early abstract painter who drew inspiration
from her communications with the spirit world, Maureen immediately
Googles for info; then she buys a book. In Assayas’s world, people
always want to know more—though in Personal Shopper, Maureen may end up knowing too much.
What she wants most desperately is to communicate with her twin
brother, Lewis, who has recently died. Lewis, who lived in a house on
the outskirts of Paris, was a medium too: He and Maureen had always
promised each other that whoever died first would send a sign to the
other. So Maureen spends night after night in her brother’s empty house,
a nest of shadowy corridors and murky windows, begging him to speak to
her. One night, the faucet begins running spontaneously. Then Maureen
sees something that sends her flying to the floor, where she cowers
against a wall. (To describe it would be a betrayal of the fierce
delicacy of the effect, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anything so unnerving
since Robert Wise’s The Haunting.) Later, Maureen receives a
mysterious, teasing text message from a contact designated as “Unknown.”
And so, via her possibly haunted smartphone, she begins communicating
with the unknown. Could it be Lewis texting her from the other side?
Maureen jumps to respond each time she hears that familiar buzz, while Stewart makes us feel the electronic tingle in our own nerve endings.
Personal Shopper is a strange and beautifully made film:
That it was booed by the first audience to see it in Cannes, a press
audience, means nothing—if anything, it’s a measure of how challenging
and original the picture is.
It’s also a further flowering of the
partnership between Assayas and Stewart, who won a Cesar for her role in
his last film, The Clouds of Sils Maria, where she played the
perceptive, long-suffering personal assistant to a demanding actress
(played by Juliette Binoche). The roles are similar on the surface, but Personal Shopper
is virtually a one-woman show. Stewart communicates with her boss
mostly by phone. She speaks to her long-distance boyfriend via Skype.
She is, after all, a woman trying to communicate with a dead man. It’s
the most solitary of pursuits.
Stewart is both laid back and ablaze here. She’s an actress who’s
always a little behind the beat: Her smile often comes on slowly. Her
eyes can be as alert as a tiger’s, but more often they seem to assay the
world with the cool, lazy blink of a lizard. And she moves with the
grace of a boy who both plays baseball and takes ballet. At one point in
Personal Shopper, in an act of sultry defiance, she secretly
tries on one of her boss’s costly dresses, trussing her tomboy-flapper
figure in a faux-bondagey harness that’s later draped with a floating
layer of black chiffon. Soft and strong, she’s garçon and femme, boy and
woman, at once.
You wouldn’t call her gamine—that’s too cute, too
in-between, and Stewart is definitive. She knows exactly who she is: Her
allure is that she keeps us guessing.