Well, it has been dubbed the year of horror by Vulture and anyone who has their eyes glued to current events. There’s a lot of truth to the former assertion as well, though some might more appropriately suggest the term ‘thriller’ instead. The box office has been kind to the grittier, more adult-oriented films thus far, with half of the top ten grossing films so far being R-Rated pictures. That’s a pretty big deal considering a grand total of one R-Rated movie made it in the top ten box office for last year. And a few on the list this year, like Logan and Get Out continue to march onward with gusto thanks to the continued hype which has bolstered them over the past few weekends. Whether it’s new (or renewed) talent making these R movies worth hiring the babysitter for, or perhaps the general macabre milieu which parallels the general sense of well-being in the world, people are being drawn to these dark films. Thankfully for us, they’re turning out to be interesting, both visually and thematically. The films that fit into this category thus far have played on the flaws of our contemporary world and made bold statements that are striking the right cord without any tackiness. One of these thrillers, though not exactly a box office darling, was Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper.
Olivier Assayas is a french filmmaker who has been quietly tinkering around since the mid-eighties with Atom Egoyan-esque erotic melodramas. Recently, he’s tiptoed into the spotlight by casting rising young stars who have a significant following in Hollywood. His latest muse appears to be Kristin Stewart, whose serves as a source of creative inspiration for a number of people oddly enough. The two worked together in 2014’s The Clouds of Sils Maria and now find themselves together in this years’ less colorfully titled, Personal Shopper. The film follows a young woman, living in Paris who is attempting to make a connection with her recently deceased dead brother by utilizing her connections to the spirit world. Oh and for her day job she works as a personal shopper for a local celebrity, because despite her character dressing like the choreographer for Kriss Kross for most of the film, she apparently has the fashion sensibilities of Anna Wintour. These two storylines seem incongruent – but they are quite complimentary, representing two worlds: one material and one immaterial. These two storylines run parallel with each other and ultimately converge at the same place, deep in the soul of the character.
Personal Shopper drops us off deep in the immaterial world. The very first sequence in the film takes us to a mysterious house, where Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is hoping to find some kind of metaphysical remnants of her brother. This sequence is ripe with tropes found in classic horror: girl alone in a big, scary, rural house with a soundtrack so quiet, you can hear yourself breathe and plenty of dutch angle shots to really give you a sense of uneasiness. But there’s a catch! She’s looking for a ghost. Maureen is, conveniently, a medium! She does these kinds of things in her free time. So when she’s in that house, she truly is the hunter and not the prey, kind of like a way less cheesy version of Ghost Hunters International. Assayas does an excellent job of using audience expectations about the horror genre and ultimately diffusing them. When Maureen does finally encounter a spirit, it seems obscured, nothing more than an amorphous ectoplasmic blob. It leaves an ephemeral presence and gives the audience a taste of fear, but with the strange desire for more. It’s a moment of confusion which appropriately parallels the greater plot of the film as well. At this point in the story, we aren’t really sure why she’s here, who she’s looking for, or even that she’s got a whole day job to get back to. Asssayas has a smart way of slowly revealing details of the plot in a way which relies on the audience to follow his breadcrumbs and making their own assertions. Kind of the opposite of a Pixar approach, where they’re sure you’re gonna understand. In the following scenes, that we realize she was trying to find her twin and make contact with him. It turns out, they both grew up with some connection to the spiritual world (he was a medium as well) and thus she feels obligated to reach out to him as they had promised one another they would when the other passed away. This whole sequence is beautifully mysterious, but the important takeaways are not about the “horror” elements. Instead, it looks to capitalize on the reconnection with her brother (there’s a lot to work with within the whole ‘twin’ concept), Maureen’s own desires and the connection to the metaphysical.
But this metaphysical realm is elusive, mostly so Assayas can tempt us with the possibility of its existance. One key figure Assayas harps on in the film is this spiritually-inspired Swedish artist, who supposedly creates works of art inspired by her communications with ghosts. This woman’s modernist works are seen as precursors to any of the work of its kind, which somehow mean it obviously must be ghosts. Interestingly enough, our only exposure to this woman is through lectures seen on Maureen’s cell phone screen, but she’s emphasized enough in a few scenes that we recognize her character’s importance: the idea that the metaphysical can have some tangible effect on the present. This effect is subtle and remains so throughout the entire film. Save for a few eerie glows, our brief exposure comes from a few creaks and moving handles. Assayas knows how to play on our real fear: expectation. We as the audience have associations which draw our thoughts to the ominous, but often the expectation is unfounded. This echoes an effect used in the film The Others by Alejandro Amenabar (2000). In that film, Nicole Kidman plays a mother of two light-sensitive children (apparently they didn’t get enough screen time) who moves to a creepy house in the English countryside where she believes she is in the presence of some otherworldly spirits. Because of the unusual condition her children suffer from, they have to make an effort to keep the place dark at all times which requires them to close doors regularly and walk with candles everywhere – generally set them up for a twenty-four hour haunted house. The same subtle spine-chilling is at play in this film. In one scene, Grace (Nicole Kidman) hears what she thinks are voices echoing throughout this room which she can plainly see is empty. And without moving a single object, we too are on edge, expecting something ghoulish to pop out and reveal itself. It doesn’t of course and – without giving anything away – the entire film plays on your expectations about the metaphysical. In fact, there’s more of a longing nostalgia associated with this other world than anything menacing, but maybe that’s the beauty of the immaterial world! Maureen’s desire to connect with this world stems from her desire to reconnect with her twin brother – her other half. She spends a significant chunk of the movie watching YouTube videos on her iPad all about ghost encounters (a nuanced cinematic technique?). In one cryptic scene, she gets really involved in a video about a TV Movie about Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables, performing a seance (seriously). It’s a really strange scene and even stranger is the fact that there is indeed some truth to it. But both Hugo and the painter have one thing in common: they both stole ideas from ghosts! Maureen gets really involved in these videos, only to have them not really ever revisited in the film. But her desire is relevant: she’s looking for a life that she knows exists, but she can’t seem to find it. Which is where we find the convergence with the other storyline and conveniently simple title: Personal Shopper.
After Maureen leaves the house in the first part of the film, we’re dropped into the reality of her world – the material world. And let me tell you, it is quite the material world: she works as a personal shopper for a french celebrity known as Kyra, who she seems to dread interacting with. Kyra is a bit full of herself and really oozes a materialistic aura, but aside from that, Maureen’s job is to hang around really beautiful people, go to cosmopolitan cities and look at really high-end clothes. How hard for you! Living in a nice Parisian apartment and having a job with outstanding networking opportunities! I get that Kristen Stewart might resent her life in the spotlight and perhaps that’s why Maureen really does make it seem like the worst job in the world. Though it sounds glamorous, these parts of the film do tire on the audience as they do Maureen and that goes double for us who are less-fashion-inclined. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m not big on watching others pick out clothes and if I was, I would probably stick to QVC, where the occasional blooper removes you from the material monotony. But her role as a shopper is a lot more vital than one might think. Maureen’s job – the very nature of the job itself – has to do with dressing another person. There are so many elements at play when clothing someone else: their style, their taste, their circumstance, etc. But ultimately it ends up being your decision. In doing so, there is some inherent connection to these decisions one makes (they’re informed by something, after all) and Maureen, dread it as she might, is connected to this other lifestyle through her career.
Clothes are reflections of identity and while Maureen spends a great deal of time carefully crafting Kyra’s, she finds the time she spends on herself lacking. After a while, we learn that Maureen does have a desire to wear the clothes she buys, having her own little taste of Kyra’s life. One scene while dropping off a few new dresses at Kyra’s flat, she runs into her boss’ boyfriend/lover/ambiguous romantic figure, Ingo(Lars Eidinger). Ingo is some kind of a mix between Hans Gruber and Michael Fassbender, combining the subtle charm of the latter and the diabolically slow delivery of the former. While waiting on Kyra, he and Maureen take a moment to complain about her and Maureen takes a moment to share with him her search for her brother and experience with the spiritual realm. Ingo goes full psychologist and starts analyzing Maureen and her free-spirited ways. The encounter seems fairly innocent, but leaves a bad taste in Maureen’s mouth. And sure enough, just after her conversation about her deceased brother and other personal divulgences, she receives a mysterious text message from an ‘unknown number’ (in this day and age?). This ‘mystery contact’ comes to her amidst a trip to retrieve more dresses for her boss. One way Assayas’ relieves us from the less-than-exciting experience that is Maureen’s shopping trip to London is by filling it with an slightly-less-than-exciting text conversation. In the moments leading up to the trip, Maureen receives a series of cyrptic texts, which seem like they’re coming from a different world. They seem menacing at first, with JigSaw like requests (“Do you want to play a game”), but end up sounding a lot more like a thirsty f*boy who doesn’t get the message. But, in a statement of encouragement to these shabby fellows, she eventually can’t resist the mystery and re-engages this figure in their game of twenty thousand questions. She believes and hopes that this is somehow her brother making an attempt to connect with her from afar. This exchange continues as she returns to Kyra’s apartment where she is coaxed into trying on her the very expensive dress she just bought, which is very taboo for a personal shopper (and plebian). But Maureen isn’t really sure about herself and wants to try on the metaphorical skin of someone else. In an intimate, elongated episode, Maureen slowly strips off her own skin, her own identity (which is a bit more masculine) and returns to an almost-nude state before staring at herself empowered by the new outfit and the feeling of the lifestyle which matches the pricetag. Assayas shows us the formative power of the material world on our identity, both literally and metaphorically.
Both in her role as a shopper and as a medium, she is in a search and some might argue an identity search. Clothes, souls, the material and immaterial come together as fragments of our identity, yet Maureen can’t seem to find either when it comes to herself. In the final sequence of the film, Assayas relieves Maureen of both of these roles. She decides to leave the hurried streets of Paris to the much more appealing tropical escape of Oman (where here non-factor of a boyfriend is living). Upon arrival, she’s forced to take a journey all by herself to catch up with him. It’s a telling moment because, for Maureen, it’s the first time she has been freed of the two burdens which have been tying her down. Upon arrival, she finds herself alone in an empty room, where the chilling presence from the beginning of the film has returned. In some strange cathartic twist, she makes contact with the spiritual, only to leave the audience with the impression that this chapter of Maureen’s life is long behind her, just as is her stint as a shopper (I guess that’s why the Middle Eastern location?).
Assayas has interestingly welded together a film about shopping and ghosts and made it really interesting. Though the film is practically dripping with his frenchness (endless cross-dissolves, tasteful nudity, tasteless nudity, melodrama, etc.), it manages to tell a story that translates quite easily to all audiences (though ironically not the french) and appeals to each of our desires to understand the nature of our identity, both in this world and possibly others. In a year where horror is king, this thinkpiece thriller should satiate one’s desire, though perhaps not the one they set out to satisfy. The combination of those two worlds, our material world and our immaterial world, the way we relate to them and engage with them, says a lot about who we are as people. If Personal Shopper leaves you with anything, it should make you think about how your next shopping trip will affect your identity, but also that we’re more than the sum of our parts – both tangible and intangible, which is a perfectly apt mantra heading into this not-so-scary year.