by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
There’s only so many times I can watch a woman get chased in films, ultimately meeting her demise, hacked to death by some force of evil or insanity, or both, before I can’t take it anymore. It’s one of the main reasons I won’t watch most horror films, or extremely violent films. It doesn’t help that I’m a huge scaredy pants (I have jumped at my own shadow before), and am incapable of watching and processing women brutalized in film. These types of images plant themselves firmly into my over-active imagination and I start picturing the same happening to me. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) of Olivier Assayas’ 2016 genre-bending Personal Shopper feels the same. During a text message interlude with the unknown behind the Unknown number sending her unsolicited creepy-time texts, she point blank admits to her “stalker” that she finds horror films unsettling. There’s always a woman running from a killer, trying to hide. I can relate, Maureen.
Throughout the course of Personal Shopper, Maureen, an American celebrity errand-girl in Paris similar to Valentine in Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, is terrorized at the hands of the following: her disgustingly self-absorbed celeb boss Kyra, Kyra’s gross AF side piece Ingo, a “female” spirit who spits up ectoplasm all over her in her twin brother’s old house, the apparent ghost of said twin brother, Lewis, some other evil ghosties (we think), and Maureen herself. She endures all of this in near isolation and despair – the only friends she appears to have are her dead brother’s girlfriend Lara, the couple buying her dead brother’s (extremely beautiful, extremely French) house, and her boyfriend Gary in Oman, near the tail-end of a job that has some kind of cyber-security bent to it. She scuttles from Parisian designer showrooms to Cartier to London designer showrooms to accessories houses and back in pursuit of the perfect clothes for Kyra to be photographed in at the latest film premieres or gorilla nonprofit fundraisers (yes, Kyra’s cause of choice is saving the gorillas, a pretty masterful character stroke by Assayas). And she seems…lost. Melancholic. There isn’t much joy in the moments we get to spend with Maureen. Her brother passed a mere three months ago, and Maureen is waiting, reluctant to leave Paris just yet. Lewis was a medium, see, and believed Maureen had the gift as well but she’s not so sure. They made a promise to each other that whoever died first would give the other a sign from beyond. Maureen, therefore, is haunted by the living, haunted by the dead, but most significantly, haunted by herself.
I, too, have been haunted. By ex-lovers and ex-friends still living, but also by…something. Possibly the dead? There was the time in high school when my Aunt Rick visited me while I was napping and told me she had passed away, and that everything was fine. When I woke up, I went downstairs and found my mom, shaken in the kitchen. As she started to break the news to me about Aunt Rick, I told her I already knew. There was the time when I was even younger when I woke up to someone caressing my forehead gently. There was no one there. My mom tells the story of when I was born, and my parents brought me home – my room smelled of roses for days after – my deceased great-grandmother’s favorite flower. Sometimes I wish I had the powers that Maureen and her brother appear to have, but I think I would be too afraid to fully navigate them.
For Maureen, it’s less about navigating her potential, harnessing it so that she can connect with Lewis and more about her passivity. She chooses simply to wait for his message. The nature and truth of spiritualism, and Maureen’s connection to it, is a major theme of Personal Shopper, one that Assayas explores – her supposed natural tether to it, her own research, but also her interactions with others. Maureen has three distinct conversations, all with men, reacting to her need to connect with Lewis’ spirit. Ingo, a fetid shell of a human person, listens to Maureen explain her pact with Lewis with disinterest, choosing neither belief nor disbelief. He just doesn’t give a shit. Shell of a human person, y’all. Gary tells her, no bullshit, that he’s a non-believer, and she should give up the ghost. And near the end of the film, Maureen shares a heart-to-heart with Lara’s new beau who is somewhere in the middle of the two – he believes but can’t be sure. All of these men offer their opinions to Maureen who…does very little with them. Their words do not alleviate her pain throughout the film, nor her fear that begins to take hold in act three.
The general fear that I possess, well I’m not sure where it came from or why it won’t go away. But I do often question why it’s so selective. After watching Personal Shopper for the second time, I wondered why I didn’t fear it like some other films (ahem, Paranormal Activity, Poltergeist – Jesus, I can’t watch these). I love the films of Assayas, but Personal Shopper is definitely more of a departure for him. He loves to make things more or less “real”, but I would categorize this one differently. Yes, most of his films point squarely towards realism and away from formalism, but PS has elements that some non-believers might call more formalist in nature – like that ectoplasm-hacking ghost, text messages that at first appear to be from the other side, water glasses floating through the air all willy nilly.
I thought about this quite a bit – is it the realism of PS that makes me appreciate it more, that keeps my fright at bay? I don’t think that’s it. Because when I start thinking about how “real” the film feels, how straightforward the dialogue and visuals are, it’s almost scarier. This could be happening to someone you know right now. This could happen to you next week. While I can’t quite put my finger on what I love so much about Personal Shopper’s more genre-related elements, I can say that what I appreciate the most is how the film doesn’t go in any direction you’d expect it to, which is one of the most refreshing aspects of Assayas’ work. Just when you think the film commits fully to supernatural ghost story, it veers into psychological thriller territory, allowing another subplot to take over, one in which Maureen is now literally that woman running away from a killer in a horror film. Except in this movie, she doesn’t go into any basements, she doesn’t arm herself with a shotgun or a large knife, doesn’t get locked into a final survival sequence, battling someone or something for her life. The best moments of PS are when Assayas drives you right where you think you’re supposed to go, stops for a moment as if to say goodbye, then takes a sharp right turn just as you were getting ready to unbuckle your seatbelt. The ending is all quizzical mind-fuck, and a quick Google search provides more than a few choice reads, chock full of potential theories as to just what the h-e-l-l is going on with Maureen come film’s end. Is she dead, like what’s the dude in The Sixth Sense? Is that really Lewis who’s just communicated with her? And if so, why doesn’t she realize it? Who’s “talking” to her at the end? And is all of this simply a manifestation of her grief? You know what, I just…don’t know. And that, to me, is kind of the point. Maureen and everyone else she talks to about the afterlife in the film – they all have their theories. They all have their own ideas. And so does the audience. We’re all coming at it with different experiences, perceptions, ideologies – Assayas wants us to question and have a think on it, make our own connections. Maureen in Personal Shopper acts as our own personal medium, through film, guiding us to our own conclusions in our own time, in our own personal ways. And we come to care about her in the same way we care about all final girls at the end of more traditional horror or spooky movies. At the end of the film she asks a spirit if they are at peace – but really I just want to know if she is.