Kristen Stewart uses physical tics as pointedly as lines of dialogue. Her artificial, artfully rendered oddness reveals something naturalism could not. This is the fourth feature in our Special Issue on Personal Shopper, which you can read in full here.
Kristen Stewart is being watched. The 26-year-old is floating through an empty house: nothing else moves but her, and Stewart exudes a kind of frenzied, studied calm as she passes through the space. She knows she is being observed yet never acknowledges it directly. Her head dips, her gaze flinches. “Awkward” is the wrong word; she’s too deliberate for that, too controlled. “Agonised” is the wrong word, too: her studied, darting physicality sometimes seems pained but not painful. Instead, her movement bypasses language, speaking of nothing but itself.
That energy doesn’t let up when she rests, either. Leaning against a railing, cigarette poked between her lips, surveying an ever-so-slightly sad autumnal landscape, she is a cupped flame, flickering back and forth restlessly. The camera hangs back, still staring, keeping Stewart in a wide shot. And Stewart shifts away from it, throwing a literal cold shoulder. The cigarette moves back and forth from her lips. Her neck creaks and bucks. Her head bobs. Kristen Stewart is never still — even when she is still.Kristen Stewart is never still — even when she is still.Click To Tweet
So it goes in the first scene of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a ghost story that stands as Stewart’s most impressive performance yet.The film actively requires her: its plot implicitly invokes a supernatural sort of voyeurism, a kind of watched weirdness that Stewart has mastered over the course of a career as both an indie darling and a Hollywood heartthrob.
Personal Shopper focuses on Stewart’s Maureen, the eponymous shopper who begins to believe that her phone is being haunted by the spirit of her departed brother. The work is therefore a character study in the strictest sense of the phrase: Maureen isn’t some vehicle for Assayas to explore the weighty issues of voyeurism and grief as much as she is the centrepiece of the film itself.Her movement bypasses language, speaking of nothing but itself.Click To Tweet
In many ways then, the film is less about haunting as it is about those haunted. Much of the storytelling work is done by Stewart, as she shuffles around the edges of the screen, wandering through space like the very “ghost” she communicates with. As ever, Assayas plays his cards very close to his chest: is Maureen going mad? Is she merely grieving? Assayas seems unwilling to answer, and as a result, Stewart’s job as an actress requires a sort of queasy flitting between knowledge and ignorance.
Stewart never plays Maureen’s “breakdown” (if it could even be called that — Stewart and Assayas seem just as willing for it to be interpreted as a breakthrough) as hyperbolic, and she avoids the sweeping gestures that define the work of many celebrated Hollywood titans. Yet every one of Stewart’s actions seems to have a secret, subliminal meaning, from the studied, near-comical looks of boredom she shoots her employer and colleagues, to the beatific, wide-eyed gaze she directs at a phone seemingly being filled with text messages sent from the dead.Every one of Stewart’s actions seems to have a secret, subliminal meaning.Click To Tweet
As the plot gets more tormented, Stewart seems to turn inward, and her physical tics get smaller and sharper. She fidgets more, but less obviously, and her constant motion becomes a kind of melancholic purr: one ceaseless, gentle collection of face taps and head tilts and awkward, ungainly stretches.
Stewart uses these tics as pointedly as lines of dialogue, to underscore and enhance the scene. When Maureen reveals the secret, eerie pact she had with her brother, for example, most of her telling is done in the way Stewart ducks her head and avoids eye contact, ashamed and anxious.
Indeed, that self-aware approach to acting work explains precisely why Stewart is so convincing as a teenager, and neatly explains why Hollywood continued to typecast her as a sullen, offbeat adolescent even as she hit her twenties. Teens are, after all, committed actors, and they remain almost constantly aware of how they are being perceived. This is precisely why Stewart is so valuable even in disparaged films like the Twilight series, or her earlier work like the low-budget oddity The Safety Of Objects.That self-aware approach to acting work explains precisely why Stewart is so convincing as a teenager.Click To Tweet
Bella Swan, for example, is constantly aware of fitting in with cliques, whether high schoolers or vampires and werewolves. She is always modulating and manipulate her behaviour, perennially awkward and self-conscious.
Just as she does with Maureen in Personal Shopper, Stewart summons Bella up out of discernible discomfort: by the jerkiness barely hidden in the lopsided, understated way she professes her love to Edward in New Moon, or the squirming, mannequin-like delivery of her vows in Breaking Dawn Part One. There is a kind of deliberate oddness about her delivery of lines throughout the series; a kind of hypnotic beauty to the Prozac-addled way she offers up such asides as “It’s my birthday, can I ask for something? Kiss me,” and “You’re sort of beautiful”.
Of course, such artistic choices were always going to receive some sort of critical and systematic blowback. Stewart has been lampooned for her work in everything from Zathura to Camp X-Ray — although she was miscast in those two movies in particular. Her character in the indie drama Camp was too much of a jock for Stewart to convincingly pull off, while Zathura required her to ground the film’s weirdness in ways that she is perhaps unable to.Kristen Stewart’s onscreen work is not real. It’s not meant to be real. Click To Tweet
Only now that Stewart is working with directors regarded as experimental auteurs is her own off-the-wall work being recognised: it’s as though her personal creative choices are only given value by critics when being mirrored from behind the camera.
Yet Stewart’s versatility and stylised oddness can work just as effectively in films where hers tics and non-naturalistic oddness is more slight: less obviously woven into the plot. She can carve her own space and transform even dour, lifeless work into something renegade. For example, in the otherwise flawed Café Society, Stewart proves over-caffeinated and eager, even as the plot itself spits and lags. She brands Allen’s comedic neurosis with her own unique stamp, making it Stewart-esque.Stewart impresses precisely because of how studied and surreal her creative mania is.Click To Tweet
As a result, she never resembles any human that you’ve ever met. But that quite quickly ceases to matter. Instead, Stewart impresses precisely because of how studied and surreal her creative mania is: a walking, pre-written punchline, she shifts through scenes with more energy than any of her sleepwalking colleagues.
So no, Kristen Stewart’s onscreen work is not real. It’s not meant to be real. But in its artificial, artfully rendered oddness, her creativity reveals something naturalism could not. Her eyes flitter away from the camera’s direct gaze and fall on something secret — something just out of sight, hitherto hidden.
Read the rest of our Special Issue on Personal Shopper here.