Kris­ten Ste­wart shines in su­per­nat­u­ral thriller

★★★★ Thriller. Rated R. 105 min­utes.

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Pat Padua Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

Ac­tress Kris­ten Ste­wart may for­ever be as­so­ci­ated with the pop­u­lar “Twi­light” fran­chise, movies that cen­ter on the grow­ing pains of vam­pires and were­wolves. Lately, how­ever, she has shone in more se­ri­ous fare from such di­rec­tors as Woody Allen (“Cafe So­ci­ety”) and Kelly Re­ichardt (“Cer­tain Women”).

With her lat­est film, French di­rec­tor Olivier As­sayas’s “Per­sonal Shop­per,” Ste­wart re­turns to the kind of su­per­nat­u­ral themes that made her a star at the mul­ti­plex — only this time it’s in a stylish, highly en­ter­tain­ing art-house thriller.

Ste­wart plays Mau­reen, a per­sonal shop­per in Paris who buys ex­pen­sive cloth­ing for her busy celebrity client (Nora von Wald­stät­ten). Mau­reen also works as a medium, charged with find­ing out whether a grand old house is still haunted by its late res­i­dent.

That res­i­dent hap­pens to be Mau­reen’s twin brother, Lewis, and her search for a sign that his spirit has sur­vived af­ter death un­der­scores the empti­ness of her life. She is, af­ter all, a mere as­sis­tant, some­one who lacks her own iden­tity and who wishes she could walk in her boss’s de­signer shoes.

Through­out the film, we hear Mau­reen’s foot­steps re­ver­ber­ate in empty spa­ces — the ghostly echo of her own very mod­ern sense of alien­ation. We fre­quently see her on her lap­top or iPhone, video-chat­ting with her boyfriend (Ty Ol­win) or look­ing up peo­ple like artist Hilma Af Klint, a pi­o­neer­ing Swedish painter and mys­tic whose 19th­cen­tury works were said to have been in­spired by spir­its — and whose art an­tic­i­pated ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism by decades.

This ubiq­ui­tous and com­fort­ing tech­nol­ogy turns sin­is­ter, though, when Mau­reen be­gins to re­ceive anony­mous text mes­sages that she at first hopes are from her late brother. The texts quickly be­come in­tru­sive, and worse.

Ac­cord­ing to Ste­wart, the idea for “Per­sonal Shop­per” grew out of a con­ver­sa­tion in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” her pre­vi­ous film with As­sayas, in which Ste­wart also played a per­sonal as­sis­tant (to a vet­eran ac­tress played by Juli­ette Binoche). As if de­fend­ing the movies that made Ste­wart a star, her “Sils Maria” char­ac­ter as­serts that there can be as much truth in genre films – sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy, for ex­am­ple – as there is in so-called se­ri­ous movies.

On one level, Mau­reen feels like a con­tin­u­a­tion of that char­ac­ter, ex­cept that here, the per­sonal as­sis­tant role an­chors a highly ef­fec­tive genre film, not a sel­f­ref­er­en­tial drama. And yet, with its lay­ers of al­lu­sions and deep mean­ing, this ap­par­ent hor­ror movie is no less in­tel­li­gent or cere­bral than the ear­lier film.

As­sayas has al­ways worked at a con­sis­tently high level of ex­cel­lence, but “Per­sonal Shop­per” is his most vi­tal film in years, at times re­call­ing the verve of his 1996 break­through “Irma Vep” (whose star, Mag­gie Che­ung, Ste­wart evokes when­ever she gets on a mo­tor­cy­cle). But you don’t need to be fa­mil­iar with As­sayas’s pre­vi­ous work to en­joy “Per­sonal Shop­per.” It works in two realms: as an en­gross­ing ghost story and a drama that ad­dresses pro­found mat­ters of life and death.

Ca­role Bethuel, IFC Films

Kris­ten Ste­wart in “Per­sonal Shop­per.”

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