The booing at the Cannes Film Festival can be brutal, and it spares no one, no matter how revered. Gus Van Sant once won the Palme d’Or for Elephant, but he wasn’t immune to jeers and whistles when his film Sea of Trees unspooled here last year. France had a homegrown hero in Michel Hazanavicius after he won an Oscar for The Artist, but when he returned to Cannes with his follow-up, The Search, the Gallic boos were particularly pronounced. And just two years after Nicolas Winding Refn won Cannes’ Best Director prize for Drive, he was hooted so badly for his film Only God Forgives that it powered an entire documentary on his post-Cannes turmoil.
Of course, it isn’t hard to see a pattern emerging here: Not long after anointing master filmmakers, the French press takes particular delight in cutting them down to size. So perhaps it should have been no surprise that last night, when the new Olivier Assayas film Personal Shopper debuted at Cannes, the French boos were locked and loaded. After all, Assayas had a major hit here two years ago with Clouds of Sils Maria, which won its star Kristen Stewart a coveted Cesar award, making her the first American to earn the French equivalent of the Oscar. Personal Shopper doesn’t just serve as a reteam of director and young muse, then, it also gives the French press an easy one-two punch: By booing it, both Assayas and Stewart could be taken down a seemingly necessary peg.
All that said, I was still surprised when Personal Shopper faded to white at its close and those masculine, accented boos began. This is no Cannes disaster: In fact, this mysterious, tantalizing film offers Stewart at her very best. Plenty of jokes have been made about the French elevating American performers like Jerry Lewis to icon status; perhaps when Personal Shopper opens stateside later this year, we’ll have the chance to reclaim something of theirs.
In the film, Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Paris who’s subsidizing her foreign stay by acting as a shopper and stylist of sorts for a demanding French actress. Maureen is lost and rootless, trying to get in touch with both herself — not easy when your waking hours are devoted to your boss’s frivolous needs — and her dead brother. You see, Maureen is a part-time medium, and she’s in Paris hoping for a supernatural sign from her sibling, who died there not long ago. All sorts of hauntings and visitations ensue as she tries to commune with the dead: In one scene, Maureen is attacked by a spirit in an old, squeaky house, and in another, bravura 20-minute sequence, a malevolent being lures her into a text-message game of cat and mouse that recalls the opening sequence of Scream. In a movie that makes good, fearsome use of the unknown, there may be nothing scarier than that text-bubble ellipsis that pops up on Maureen’s iPhone, indicating that her tormentor has one more unnerving thing to type.
What’s really striking about both of those sequences, other than their ruthless efficacy, is that Stewart holds the screen alone in them. Even when near-mute and given no scene partner, she’s fascinating to watch, and I’ve never seen her this vulnerable onscreen before. It takes a lot of guts to cast someone with Stewart’s evident self-certainty as a woman this lost, but Assayas’s gamble pays off: Even when Stewart is costumed in the slouchy sweaters, polo shirts, and sneakers she tends to favor in her daily life, she still feels like a new woman.
Maybe it helps that Maureen’s struggle is one Stewart can relate to. “I spend my days doing bullshit that doesn’t interest me, and it keeps me from what does,” the character complains at one point, and you could assume that Stewart came to a similar epiphany when she decided to chuck blockbuster product for more adventurous filmmaking. Not that the media has let her forget where she came from: At the film’s press conference today, one reporter expressed surprise that a Hollywood actress like Stewart would go nude twice in Personal Shopper, and several journalists brought up Twilight in the clumsiest of fashions. When she was asked, “Which one is better, a vampire or a ghost?” I thought of Maureen enduring an inane request from her boss, collecting herself, and moving on.
I don’t doubt that Stewart and Assayas will handle the boos in the same fashion. “When you come to Cannes, you’re prepared for anything,” Assayas said today, and while Stewart rightly noted that not everyone booed, she didn’t seem too concerned with it anyway. The paces that Personal Shopper had put her through had left her stronger on the other side. “I don’t mean to sound too dramatic or actor-y in saying, ‘Oh, it almost broke me,’ but I can do anything [now]. This movie made me feel like there’s nothing I can put myself through that could make me not keep going.”
“I’ve just never felt so good,” she said, “feeling so bad.”