Ste­wart’s spir­ited role

‘Per­sonal Shop­per’ ac­tress says her best work is akin to a seance

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com

Don’t let the ti­tle fool you. In “Per­sonal Shop­per,” Kris­ten Ste­wart’s sec­ond out­ing with French au­teur Olivier As­sayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”), the tit­u­lar oc­cu­pa­tion refers only to the day job of Ste­wart’s char­ac­ter, Mau­reen, a tomboy­ish young woman who scoots around Paris on a moped pick­ing up ex­pen­sive cloth­ing, shoes and jew­elry for her client (Nora von Wald­stät­ten), a glo­be­trot­ting celebrity. Se­cretly, she hates the work.

Her char­ac­ter’s true call­ing, you see, is as an artist. She is also some­thing of a spirit medium.

By night, Mau­reen wan­ders around her late brother Lewis’s empty house, search­ing for a sign from be­yond the grave. Mau­reen’s twin, Lewis also was a medium and shared a con­gen­i­tal heart de­fect with his sis­ter. They had agreed that who­ever died first would send the other con­fir­ma­tion of an af­ter­life.

But it would be a mis­take the call “Per­sonal Shop­per” a ghost story in any lit­eral sense, says As­sayas, who sat in on a con­fer­ence call with his lead­ing lady to cor­rect mis­im­pres­sions about the new film. De­spite the pres­ence of an ec­to­plasm-spew­ing pol­ter­geist, “Per­sonal Shop­per” is, ac­cord­ing to the 62-year-old film­maker, less an art-house ver­sion of “Ghost­busters” than a metaphor for “vis­i­bil­ity and in­vis­i­bil­ity.”

“It’s a story about some­one who grad­u­ally man­ages to comes to terms with her­self, and to un­der­stand her iden­tity and, even­tu­ally, even her own fem­i­nin­ity,” As­sayas says. “I’m us­ing the con­ven­tions of genre film be­cause it’s the best way to con­vey in­ner fear, in­ner anx­i­eties and so on and so forth.”

If the ti­tle also is a metaphor, it’s an es­pe­cially apt one. Af­ter all, is it not the task of the per­sonal shop­per to chan­nel the per­son­al­ity — or at least the tastes — of an­other in­di­vid­ual? In the film, Mau­reen is shown study­ing the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter who claimed that her pi­o­neer­ing ab­strac­tions were com­mis­sioned by be­ings from the as­tral plane, as well as that of the writer Vic­tor Hugo, who be­lieved he could com­mu­ni­cate with spir­its of fa­mous dead peo­ple. Isn’t chan­nel­ing, in a man­ner of speak­ing, what ev­ery ac­tor does?

Ac­cord­ing to Ste­wart — who says she’s not sure whether she be­lieves in ghosts — the an­swer is a re­sound­ing yes.

“I find it re­ally self-ag­gran­diz­ing and id­i­otic for self-pro­claimed artists to take an im­mense amount of credit for their work, in a way that is self-cel­e­bra­tory,” says the 26-year-old ac­tress, who in 2015 be­came the first Amer­i­can to win a best sup­port­ing ac­tress César — the French equiv­a­lent of the Os­car — for her per­for­mance in “Sils Maria.” “Re­ally, you’ve just been on the re­ceiv­ing end of some­thing that passes through you.

“The artist is only the sum of his work,” Ste­wart con­tin­ues, quot­ing from the Patti Smith mem­oir “Just Kids”: “Man can­not judge it. For art sings of God, and ul­ti­mately be­longs to him.”

If man can­not judge “Per­sonal Shop­per,” he cer­tainly has tried (though the score­card is, so far, pretty mixed.) An early au­di­ence booed the film af­ter a me­dia screen­ing at last year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. Then, the fol­low­ing night, the film’s fes­ti­val of­fi­cial pre­miere was met with a five-minute stand­ing ova­tion.

As an ac­tor, Ste­wart says, she takes such ups and downs in stride, and com­pares her best work to par­tic­i­pat­ing in a kind of seance-like trance. “There’s never been a time when I’ve done a scene and looked around the room and gone, ‘Ooh, we nailed it. We should be so proud of that.’ What you do is you look around and go, ‘Oh, my God, did ev­ery­one just feel that? Did ev­ery­one feel the same way?’ Once you re­al­ize that you did, and that you’ve made this connection, it al­ways feels spir­i­tual. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re so lucky that we were open enough to let that pass through us.’ ”

What­ever ac­co­lades Ste­wart has re­ceived for the film — and more than one critic has called her per­for­mance mes­mer­iz­ing — the ac­tress gives all glory not to God but to As­sayas, who says he wrote the part of Mau­reen, a pro­foundly lost and trou­bled soul, specif­i­cally for Ste­wart. “Kris­ten has such in­cred­i­ble con­trol of what she’s do­ing,” he says, “at the same time as she’s fol­low­ing com­plete free­dom. It’s a mix that’s ex­tremely un­com­mon.”

Ste­wart de­scribes As­sayas’s way of film­mak­ing as aris­ing less from the im­pulse to tell a pre­con­ceived story than out of an in­ter­est in ask­ing open ques­tions. “In this case,” she says, “there was the [ghost] sub­ject mat­ter, but, more im­por­tantly, there were re­ally pointed ques­tions. But ev­ery sin­gle per­son on the crew — ev­ery sin­gle cast mem­ber, my­self in­cluded, and Olivier — we all had dif­fer­ent re­sponses to th­ese ques­tions. Whether our re­sponses to them were the same or not didn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter. They de­fined the movie, but didn’t al­ter our course. What we ul­ti­mately dis­cov­ered was that ev­ery­thing was a rev­e­la­tion, rather than an ac­com­plish­ment.”

Not that there’s any­thing wrong with mak­ing movies where ev­ery­thing is cut and dried, Ste­wart says. Ced­ing com­plete con­trol to a direc­tor can be just as lib­er­at­ing as let­ting the spir­its move you. “I’ve been in­volved in films where a story sort of pre­ex­ists and is some­what fi­nite, and you’ve been hired to func­tion as not much more than a mouth­piece for a film­maker,” she says. “You feel that con­trol, and it’s not al­ways stul­ti­fy­ing, iron­i­cally. Some­times it’s ac­tu­ally re­ally sat­is­fy­ing to hit some­thing hard re­ally hard for some­one, and to do it in a way that is con­trolled by them.”

On the other hand, Ste­wart says, she has come to re­al­ize that her great­est strength now lies in what she once saw as her great­est weak­ness: that sense of painful awk­ward­ness that comes from be­ing a “nat­u­rally shy” in­tro­vert. And how ex­actly did she gain that in­sight? Only the hard way, she ex­plains: by mak­ing bad movies. “Any­time any­thing was su­per planned out, or seemed like a great idea on pa­per and there was noth­ing that could go wrong with it, it al­ways ended up be­ing trite and empty and em­bar­rass­ing and so not worth­while.

“I’m much more com­fort­able,” she says, “be­ing un­com­fort­able.”

Per­sonal Shop­per (R, 105 min­utes). At area the­aters.

IFC FILMS

Kris­ten Ste­wart and Olivier As­sayas on the set of “Per­sonal Shop­per.” “Kris­ten has such in­cred­i­ble con­trol of what she’s do­ing,” As­sayas says, “at the same time as she’s fol­low­ing com­plete free­dom.”

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