“There was a presence… I felt something I just can’t tell… it was too far.”
― Kristen Stewart as Maureen in Personal Shopper, 2016
Olivier Assayas’s 2016 film is stuck between its identity as an art film and a genre film. These distinctions are organized, with some inelegant neatness, around the dual life of Kristen Stewart’s Maureen, her life as a personal shopper for an elusive celebrity fashionista―a job and a boss she hates but needs to afford rent as an expat in Paris―and her life as a sometimes-skeptical spiritual medium, waiting for a message from the grave from her recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shares her spiritual gift as well as a rare congenital heart disorder. The tensions between these separate facets of the film are fascinating and rich but they aren’t necessarily the things that make Personal Shopper a unique cinematic work.
What makes Personal Shopper extraordinary are the ways in which its tensions overwhelm us and render our typical interpretative strategies ineffective―we are lost under the gossamer of theme and tone, narrative thread and plot point and we find ourselves, not unlike Stewart’s Maureen, waiting for an answer from some imperceptible spirit world, or else looking inwardly and trying to make sense of ourselves in all of the messiness. The pacing, the use of wide angles, and Stewart’s remarkably low-key performance impresses upon the viewer a profound loneliness from which interpretation offers little respite. Like Maureen we find ourselves drifting, desperate to make a connection to anything.
There is a moment, early in the film, during the first haunted house sequence, which captures the feeling of the movie for me. Maureen climbs the stairs of an old mansion her twin brother stayed in before he died. She moves into a long hallway, and calls out into the darkness. She wants to make contact. She’s waiting for a sign. She’s hunting a ghost. Some rustling something down the corridor catches her (and the audience’s) attention. Leaning into the sound, she slowly steps forward, deeper into the blackness of the house. She meekly calls out her brother’s name and sits still for some time, waiting for a response. The scene is already dark but now her face is cast entirely in shadow.
It’s a subtle but stirring image. In a moment her predicament is clear: she is a void, a stranger even to herself, and utterly alone. Her identity is obliterated by the night, the emptiness of this old home, her unanswered questioning, the loss of her brother and her own listlessness. She is adrift and so she is lost, unlikely to find whatever it is she is looking for, and frightfully in danger of losing herself forever.
Assayas’s film is a treatise on millennial ennui without any of the condescension and buoyed by the weightiness of grief. The place of cellphones and contemporary technology in cinema is often clumsily stepped around or otherwise mocked and derided as some diseased part of a culture of young people. Here, the cellphone is figured as the 21st century’s spirit board, a window into other worlds, and a miraculous, if not unreliable, method of communication. This idea of new technologies connects itself through a history of communicative forms, each discovered/explored by Maureen through her cellphone, on a long train ride to or from some fashion boutique, or through her laptop, at her apartment, retired from the day’s work, blanketed by the discomforting calm of night. Maureen connects to the world as most of us do on a daily basis, through screens into other worlds, alone in our bedrooms or among crowds of strangers, but alone nonetheless.
The history and practice of art-making and the histories of spiritualism are inextricable in Personal Shopper. Maureen’s would-be sister-in-law Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who is assisting Maureen in her attempt to connect with her dead brother, directs Maureen to the rediscovered works of spiritualist Hilma af Klint, now understood as an early pioneer of abstract painting. Klint’s paintings are diagrammatic but esoteric. Purportedly made through periods of “automatic drawing,” Klint claimed to have no privileged information of the meaning of the geometric designs she painted. Instead, she maintained she was guided by unseen forces to develop a new language toward an understanding of distant spirit worlds as well as the unknown internal worlds of self.
Later, Maureen watches on YouTube, also mostly from her phone, scenes from an invented 1960’s made-for-TV biopic which focuses on Victor Hugo’s real-life interest in the occult and experiments with spiritualism. The movie-within-a-movie was directed by Assayas and is both plausible as a genuine film of the period and markedly ostentatious (Maureen’s sister-in-law calls it “tacky”). Although Personal Shopper is shot entirely on 35mm film, the textures and particularities of the medium are not as pronounced as they are in the made-up Hugo film, which is full of deep blacks and grainy imperfections. Hugo, a poet and novelist of gargantuan reputation, first dismissed mediumship but was drawn in by the belief that, during a seance with famed spiritualist and fellow author Delphine de Giradin, he had made contact with his beloved daughter Léopoldine, whose death had shook the author into a deep depression during which he was unable to write.
In a prolonged Hitchcockian centerpiece, set across several train rides and a number of haute boutiques, Maureen texts back and forth with an unknown number, unsure if the messages are being sent across another device or from some ethereal gateway to the land of the dead. This calls forth the new disquieting permanence the dead have in the digital library world of social media as well as the general unreliability of texting, how meaning gets lost, how we can be unsure of what has been said, and thus unsure of what we may say next.
The sequence invokes danger, and, despite consisting primarily of reverse-shots (from phone screen to Stewart, Stewart to phone screen) and lasting nearly 15 minutes in duration, it’s suspenseful and gripping throughout. Maureen’s thumbs hover over her touchscreen keyboard. She’s nervous, at times shaking. Is she talking to some stalker that has pursued her onto the train, or is she talking to her dead brother, or some malevolent spirit that has attached itself to her? The experience is destabilizing but the hope for answers draws us nearer to the unknown, and, for Maureen, perhaps nearer to oblivion.
Painting and poetry are figured as communicative technologies connected to a history of spiritualism that carries us through to present day, where the new art form is the cinema and the recent digital mediums that constitute it and our larger lives are the new spirit boards. Thus, Assayas and Stewart become the new great spiritualists and cinema/acting their methods of communication. However, just as spiritualisms of old, none of these forms or technologies are uncomplicated and are sometimes barely sensible, resisting clarification and closure. In these ways, our frustrations with a piece of art that won’t yield to our interrogations stands in for the unreliability of our tools of investigation (tools of communication, tools of art-making) and our anxieties toward a world that, ultimately, remains mysterious.
In one of the very few close-ups of Stewart in the film, Maureen is trying on a pair of shoes she’s interested in buying for her famous boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). She wants to wear the black-stiletto boots, but she’s worried that the shop clerk will reveal her betrayal; Kyra forbids her from trying on the clothes she shops for. She walks up and down the store floor, modeling the shoes, regarding herself, if just for a moment, as someone else. She maintains an intellectual distance but the emotional draw of fantasy is strong. The camera cuts and we are physically closer to Stewart than we have been for the entire film. There is a hidden rapture on her face and the closeness, previously resisted by the dominant use of wide-angles, is viscerally felt. Suddenly, we feel as if we’re seeing Maureen for the first time, maybe just as she is sensing something inside herself, even if that something is just the truth that she doesn’t know yet who she is, that she likes the idea of being someone else. Assayas abruptly cuts to a wide-shot of a lake and the green overgrowth surrounding it, engulfing it. Just as we’re close, we’re given ambiguity, messiness, and displacement. The film resists closure.
For me it has been difficult to write about Personal Shopper. Its many threads appear at times so thinly connected (luxury shopping, mediumship, stalking, iPhones, trying on fancy clothes, eroticism, long-distance relationships, siblings, pretending to be someone else, Vespas, train rides, hotel rooms, ghosts, Skype, celebrity cultures and art-making) but their relationships nonetheless expand, and deepen with attention. Just as soon as you feel you have a hold on some mode of reading, a contradiction or another strand leads you in another direction entirely, but one that loops back to wherever you started. As a text it offers endless permutations and dense readings, and as cinema it seizes on this difficulty to place us into a nowhere space, feeling a connection we cannot quite make sense of, certainly cannot see in a single glance, but that keeps us questioning, calling out into the void if anyone is there or if, in the end, it’s just us. And, if we are alone, who are we anyway?
Personal Shopper screened at IU Cinema in April 2017 as part of the International Arthouse Series, co-sponsored by Ryder Magazine. The International Arthouse Series at IU Cinema is a continuing series of new film releases from around the globe—some which have not been released theatrically in the U.S.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.