The haunting of a half-hearted woman
Just as Olivier Assayas’s new film Personal Shopper keeps shapeshifting from horror movie to socio-economic commentary to erotic thriller to paranormal murder mystery… so this review keeps shifting as I write it. I haven’t published my comments until now because I couldn’t figure out where to begin in describing all that this movie might be “really about.” It opens so many possible paths of interpretation, offers so many interesting mysteries, and confounds so many genre expectations. I’ve tried and abandoned five approaches, all of them seeming insufficient.
Does this mean that the film doesn’t hold together? Or does it mean that it’s too unique and imaginative to easily describe? I can’t decide. But for what it’s worth, here they are.
1. Focus on the film’s terrifying ghost story.
Personal Shopper tells the story of Maureen, a young woman who, grieving the death of her twin brother, eagerly awaits signs from beyond the grave that he is at peace.
Maureen, played by Kristen Stewart, seems confident that she will receive that visitation. Perhaps that’s because she identifies as a medium. Is she? Can she communicate with the dead? The film doesn’t give us any reason to doubt her on that claim; she certainly experiences something paranormal. But the film isn’t interested in giving us answers about what, exactly, she’s experiencing. Something comes to Maureen. Is it her brother? Is it a ghost? Is she mad?
Whatever signals she’s receiving, they’re not encouraging. Fearsome, distorted, the visions convey an amplified sense of Maureen’s own obsessions — they’re pained, even diseased, by unfulfilled longings and desperate unrest. They want something, and they’re not happy.
Whatever we decide about Maureen’s visions, we’re right there with her in our anxiety. The mansion that serves as the setting of the film’s freaky first act is so beautifully revealed that I wish the film had taken me back there for its finale, if only because it has some of the most glorious shadows and sounds of any big-screen haunted house I’ve experienced. As much as I love the ghoul-fraught CGI wonderland of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, I find this place much, much scarier.
2. Praise the director’s agility.
A ghost story seemed, at first, like an unlikely project for the director of Summer Hours (2008), a magnificent drama about one age of art and culture giving way to a new one. It’s one of the most beautiful dramas of the 2000s, a multi-generational story with several main characters, and one that was quickly awarded with inclusion in The Criterion Collection. By comparison, Personal Shopper can seem like a curiosity, a smaller endeavor focused almost entirely on one character’s crisis.
But the more I reflect on what Personal Shopper is about, the more it makes sense that this would come from the same imagination. Borders seem to be Assayas’s most recurring theme: generational, cultural, sexual. And his most compelling characters are those who seem trapped in a no man’s land.
As a medium, Maureen is a border-crossing agent. She’s a go-between, a middleman, a consumer who shops for someone other than herself. And that puts Assayas right where he likes to work. He’s interested in a soul haunted by a lost intimacy, stuck in lonely pursuits of serving and communicating with others — living and dead — who are beyond her physical reach, and who, when she does see them, are only half present, distracted by conversations with others far away. At times, Maureen’s desperation leads to furtive and desperate border crossing — putting on her boss’s clothes when nobody’s looking, consenting to dialogue with a stalker for the sake of having an attentive listener, fantasizing about a make-believe lover.
Whether chasing Maureen on her motorcycle (another choice that underlines her isolation), or watching her shop for her boss’s next party dress or Cartier ornaments, or following her through the haunted mansion, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux makes this a convincing, unglamorous Paris. And in doing so, he and Assayas make the worlds of social media, high fashion, and ghosts overlap convincingly.
3. Rave about Kristen Stewart in the role of her career (so far).
Here, Stewart plays a revision on the character she played in 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Once again, she’s a personal assistant who loses herself by supporting somebody else.
In Sils Maria, the job made a lot more sense: she was managing the life of a world-famous actress (played by Juliette Binoche), and the two worked together as a seasoned team. Here, Maureen works as an errand-runner for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a self-absorbed celebrity who gives her nothing in return but a paycheck — not even eye contact. Thus, the title Personal Shopper becomes an oxymoron: Maureen’s work benefits someone else, but there is nothing personal about it. She is a meaningless part of a consumer transaction, always longing to be someone else.
It’s a self-effacing performance made of raw nerves. Maureen’s insomniac eyes, her twitches, her bursts of needy dialogue and her long silences — these speak of someone who is unaccustomed to being seen, heard, trusted, or cared about. She dresses as though deliberately avoiding attention, as though oblivious to her own beauty. Thus, those few scenes in which we see her slip out of her clothes and into someone else’s, the nudity comes as a shock. How can a beauty so embodied live so oblivious to herself, and devote herself to decorating a vain and cruel celebrity? And why does she live in a state of fracture, convinced of her incompleteness, longing for someone disembodied and seeming like she just might cross over to catch up with him?
Assayas seems inclined to pass La Binoche’s crown to Stewart. He signaled this with Clouds of Sils Maria, by casting Stewart as Binoche’s assistant. And here, he lures her into a few familiar moments — familiar because Binoche played similar scenes for director Michael Haneke in Code Unknown.
Watch for a shot on the subway in which Maureen, flinching under the abuse of a bully, sits on the Metro next to a man who bears a striking resemblance to Amelie‘s Maurice Bénichou. In Code Unknown, Bénichou — playing a benevolent subway-riding stranger in one scene only — stands up and defends Binoche’s Anne from her assailant. Here, though, the man sitting beside Maureen remains oblivious of trouble. Maureen’s attacker is invisible.
Much later, watch for the moment when Maureen realizes that she is really, really trapped, and she looks into the camera just the way Anne does in Code Unknown when she (in the film within a film) realizes that she’s locked in.
(Huh. My wife’s name is Anne Maureen. Does that increase my feelings of empathy and defensiveness on these characters’ behalf? Never mind.)
4. Celebrate the film’s cross-genre experimentation.
Perhaps you’re wondering — how does a story about the glamour of showbiz become both a ghost story and a murder mystery?
You’ll have to see for yourself. No wonder poor Maureen looks as though she’s exhausted from playing the lead in several movies at once.
It’s easy to empathize with Maureen, seeing that, as far as she knows, half her heart died when her twin brother crossed over. But it’s also easy (unnervingly so) to see how possible it is to slip out of the world of in-person interactions and into a life of strange and ephemeral relationships. If we embrace this new world of digital communication, aren’t we consenting to a life of disembodiment? Maureen’s like a ghost herself, living without substantial human connections. Her boyfriend? We only see him as a pixellated image on a screen, and he’s always appealing for her to join him in the flesh. Meanwhile, her sex life is all imagination and fantasy. She keeps her thoughts and feelings bottled up, unless a complete stranger asks — for some reason, that’s a more comfortable option than friendship. For peace, she seeks communion with someone beyond the grave.
And yet none of these things quiet her longings — they only heighten her unease. The more Maureen bases her security on words that arrive from other dimensions (spiritual or digital), the more she’s doomed to fracture when those bonds are severed. The more she fantasizes about who she wants to become, the more she seems doomed to never discover who she might become.
How can Maureen find wholeness again? Is she really so different than any of us and our myriad ways of scratching our neglected relational itches with feeble substitutes?
The movie doesn’t have an answer for Maureen’s questions, but it runs her past a lot of signs that read “Wrong Way.” She goes from secretly dressing herself in the off-limits wardrobe of a celebrity to giving in to the appeals of an invisible stalker for the possibility of intimacy. It’s as if losing her brother has made her too comfortable with the idea of communing with someone seemingly non-corporeal, until that Presence — or, perhaps, those Presences — prove unfriendly and far too capable of achieving real-world consequences.
5. Worry about the film’s reflections on technology
My increasing sense of unease over the seeming essentiality of a “personal device” may have much to do with why I felt so gripped by Personal Shopper.
I resisted the gravitational pull of cell phones as long as I could. I wanted to save money, to live “off-leash,” to avoid staring into my hand while walking, and to remain attentive to my surroundings. What’s more — I knew that if I had a device in my hand that enabled me to connect with friends anytime, anyplace, I would use it all the time. I would struggle to protect my time and freedom.
And I was right. Now I feel chills when I hear that old Police song “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” It’s so easy to let these powerful technologies become a controlling force in our lives, while flattering ourselves that we are using them. This year in particular has shown me just how much I turn to the digital realm for peace of mind, only to end up more troubled than before. 2017 has been a year of daily damage, a relentless barrage of bad news about America’s turn toward treason and tyranny, and its abandonment of “liberty and justice for all.” How often have I lately found myself reaching for my smartphone in the hopes of finding relief — some good news, a message from a friend who isn’t anywhere nearby, an alert that might bring consolation? As a result, I spend less in-person time with friends. I spend less time engaging great art and more time scanning social media. How addicted have I become to the adrenaline spike of posts about imminent threats? Why am I letting this unnatural access to so much of the world beyond my reach and experience bear such heavy influence over my spirit?
In a time when the Powers That Be are increasing their capacity to monitor us, to manipulate us, to catch us in their snares, Olivier Assayas’s new horror movie works like a wicked charm.