Thursday 25 April 2019

On a Thousand Walls #18: Personal Shopper (2016)

Usually when I write a response to a film, I tend to avoid looking too hard at the technical stuff, things like the specifics of direction, mise-en-scene, the edit. And that's partly because I'm sort of laser focussed on writing, acting performances, and the tastiest, sexiest bit of all, the subtext. And that's partly because this technical stuff is right outside of what I call my field of expertise. And of course the shortcoming of my approach is that a film is an entire artefact. All of these things work as part of the story told by a film or a TV show. Consider how with selective editing reality shows routinely make friends appear to be enemies or entirely innocuous social cues to be actions of calculating villainy: fictions are like that too. The truism with conversation also holds with visual media – it's not what you're saying, it's how you're saying it.

And this is where I get to the films of Olivier Assayas, and Personal Shopper in particular.

I've not seen many of his films, but there's something about the films of his I've seen that tend to the documentary, a sort of flat, affectless take on realism, an ordinariness that works hard to ground the weirdness of the source material. Demonlover, which I looked at a while back, has these matter of fact conversational scenes, these board meetings where people talk blankly about the positioning of pubic hair in hentai, and this sort of mundane, everyday approach to the story of the fragmentation of a human identity to the extent that she is reduced to an empty digital object, and the flat normality of the approach both grounds and makes more terrifying the horrific subject matter.

Personal Shopper isn't a horror, as such, but uses many of the same tricks, the documentary approach that emphasises the weirdness of what's going on.
The first we see of Maureen (Kristen Stewart, routinely underrated, here once again giving a flawless performance), the title of the film superimposes itself over her image. This is the personal shopper of the title, but immediately we see her doing something entirely other than that, as she enters an empty house and attempts to communicate with its ghost.

The eponymous personal shopper, then, is immediately defined by what she isn't doing. “Personal Shopper” is what she does but what she is becomes apparent early on: a person not defined by that strangest of jobs, a person with a life, with sadnesses and burdens.

Maureen is a medium. This is the home of her twin brother Lewis, who died tragically young. She hopes to speak to him, but he is not here. There is a ghost here. It is not Lewis.

The ghost that is not Lewis, or which may not be Lewis, is a recurring theme through the length of Olivier Assayas's film. We will see the evidence of other ghosts. They invisibly surround Maureen, and since she is positioned as the audience identification character, the conclusion we are invited to draw is that they invisibly surround us.

As a personal shopper, Maureen goes shopping for clothes so her employer, celebrity Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) doesn't have to. What Kyra is a celebrity for isn't explained, but then that's part of the world of the film. It doesn't matter and the resolutely realistically way the film is presented means that no one's going to explain it because everyone in the film knows who she is, which is why she needs a personal shopper in the first place. Or to put it another way, if someone needed to explain to anyone else in the film who Kyra is, she wouldn't need a personal shopper. So Maureen picked up exclusive couture and expensive jewellery from stores you've heard of, and drops it in a usually uninhabited apartment, for Kyra to find it and appear in front of the cameras in it.
But the only time Kyra appears before Assayas's camera, she is not a knockout in couture. She is complaining that the gorillas in the wildlife sanctuary she patronises aren't behaving photogenically enough and she is too busy to interact with Maureen, who is, it is clear, nothing more than a lackey to her, a wallet by proxy. In fact, Kyra is defined by her absence: gossip about her, a list of requests, a decision as to what Kyra will like, a conversation where an unknown voice steamrollers across Maureen's objections and forces the personal shopper to acquiesce.

Maureen goes to real world stores, as I said; her world is populated by real-world brands, real-world technology, rather than the off-brand substitutes we see in films like this. None of these things are product placements, they are simply facts. It is Maureen's job to live in a world where she has to deal with Cartier, and use an iPhone, and Google real-world artists on Google, and watch movies uploaded to YouTube. She talks to her long-distance boyfriend on Skype, because that's what you use to talk to people far away.
A clip from a fictional movie-within-the-movie, framed as a thing uploaded to YouTube, presents a drama where Victor Hugo (Benjamin Biolay) conducts a séance in a style that is consciously not Assayas's: here the performances and camera angles are consciously cinematic, the music rises, the lighting artificial and staged. Produced. And all of this is framed with the visual artefacts of Youtube. It's a stolen scene, a fiction violating a fiction's copyright using a real medium. But this is normal. This is how people consume video.

In all of this, Maureen is presented as ordinary. She behaves like an ordinary person, talks like an ordinary person, and the constant reification of ordinariness is essential, because she isn't, frankly. The film pulls this sleight-of-hand trick to make her seem ordinary. But really she's the 21st century equivalent of the noblewoman's personal agent or lady-in-waiting, herself a lower level of petty nobility. Ordinary Americans don't wind up in Paris working as personal shoppers for celebrity fashionistas, they don't scoot back and forth across Europe to pick up outfits.

And ordinary people do not talk to the dead.

Except, of course, they do. Because mediums are always ordinary. I should know, I'm the child of one.

And if mediums are ordinary, the ghosts of the dead are, too. They are part of the cast of this film; it is a haunted film, a film where the ghosts are part of the furniture of our life. We are surrounded by invisible people. The ghosts are only different in that they are literally invisible, rather than notionally so, but we recognise them barely as well.
Maureen begins to receive messages from an unknown number – and again, I feel I have to talk about the realism of it, the understated confidence that Assayas has that we'll be engaged by the anxiety of a text conversation. Later, there's a really tremendous scene which draws tension from the simple fact that Maureen turns her phone on to download new messages sent over the last ten minutes from her unknown contact, one by one: I'm coming to your place, I'm outside, I'm waiting, I'm coming up, I'm on the landing. I think this is the first film I've seen that really accurately portrays the unique rhythm of text conversations as its own thing and the specific form of anxiety attached to that.

Maureen's quiet desperation, both in the apparent pointlessness of her job and the loneliness and grief that comes from a lost part of her world, to see a sign from Lewis, leads her to wonder far too soon if this is Lewis's ghost messaging her, and her unknown contact makes no attempt to disabuse her of the idea. The messages prod Maureen, goad her, dare her. She tells her interlocutor that she hates games, but plays his game – it's definitely a he from the beginning, there's something about the way he plays with Maureen that is so very male – and winds up, pushed by the messages, into trying on Kyra's couture while her employer is not there, which has explicitly been called out as forbidden, and, finding release in the violation of the boundary, masturbates in Kyra's bed. And this isn't presented as a particularly salacious act. It's lonely. Everything in Maureen's life is defined by a line: the line between the living and the dead, the right of her employer to wear clothes she can't.
The messages don't come from Lewis. They carry a threat. We will discover that they follow from a chance conversation, one of the very few properly expository conversations in the film, with an apparently minor character who gets the idea from Maureen's self-disclosure that she can be manipulated into the frame for a terrible crime. He does not mean Maureen well.

It is not Lewis. But ghosts surround Maureen, and she communicates with them. There is an inhabitant in Lewis's house. It is not Lewis. An automatic door opens and closes. It may not be Lewis. A spirit at the close of the film communicates with poltergeist phenomena, and it might be Lewis but it might not be. The only manifestation that is really of Lewis happens behind Maureen's back. Even when he's there, she can do no more than suspect.

The dead then are like the living. They surround us, and they can be heard if only we have ears to listen. But their messages are equivocal, unclear. Ghosts have the right to haunt us however they will, and they will. They are present in the landscape of the city. They are around us, fellow inhabitants, fellow travellers. And they are no more inclined to behave predictably, or be even-tempered, than the living.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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