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Road Maps to Heaven: Grief and Isolation in Personal Shopper

Functioning as something of a followup to Olivier Assayas’s tremendous Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Personal Shopper (2016) is a brave and unsettling range of genres that melds everything from the Gothic ghost story to drama of personal crisis to thriller. Impossible to categorize, I can’t imagine that this will be an easy sell for the casual film viewer and it seems to have divided critics; at Cannes, it was apparently met with boos one night and vigorous applause the next. This French-German coproduction reunites Assayas with Kristen Stewart (costar of Clouds of Sils Maria, star of Personal Shopper). As in Clouds of Sils Maria, she plays the personal assistant to a famous actress and similar themes include characters watching films; characters using smartphones, ipads, and other computer-based technology as a primary means of communication; unexplained phenomena like mysterious cloud formations or outright hauntings; and how concepts like distance and the passing of time affect human lives and relationships.

But the relatively straightforward plot of Clouds of Sils Maria—a mature actress preparing to return to the play that made her famous 20 years ago, albeit in the opposite role—is upended by Personal Shopper. Stewart stars as Maureen, an American who has taken a job as the personal assistant of high-profile actress Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), so that she is able to keep living in Paris. In between stops to pick up jewelry and couture dresses for her boss—with whom she rarely speaks or interacts during the course of the film—she is searching for her twin, Lewis. But Lewis is recently deceased, thanks to a heart defect, and as a self-styled medium, Maureen hopes to make contact with him, a mutual promise both twins made in previous years. During her search, she receives text messages from an unknown caller and it isn’t clear if someone is stalking her or if she has made contact with Lewis—or someone else—from beyond the grave.

On paper, Maureen is a flat and difficult to describe protagonist. There is an undefined quality about her; she is everything and nothing. At once feminine and androgynous, glamorous and grungy, driven and bored, it is Stewart’s charisma and her supremely watchable quality that rests at the center of this universe. As seemingly every film critic has noticed in the last year, Stewart has become the actress to watch—something I never would have believed a few years ago when she was only known for the Twilight series. But the awkwardness, sense of inner disquiet, and the stilted quality of her movements that made her seem absurd in the Twilight films (which in retrospect can probably be blamed on the fantastically awful source novel and script) here becomes a strange source of strength and charisma.

When Maureen explains why she’s in Paris—she says, “I’m waiting”—there is the sense that she seems disaffected or even disinterested by the world around her. This is something she has in common with many of Assayas’s other protagonists. There is a restlessness at the heart of his films that seems to feed into their inherent complexity; his films are often defined by characters waiting, searching for something indescribable. Assayas recently said, “They want me to give them labels, but I don’t like to simplify the description of my films. I don’t see films as single genres, any more than I see the world in single colors.” This refusal to be easily digested is a quality Assayas has in common with a director like Andrzej Zuławski, and, as with Zuławski’s Possession (1981), has led to the unfortunate descriptor of Personal Shopper as a horror film or a thriller.

The film does have some genre elements, though I am reluctant to give up too many plot details and spoil Personal Shopper’s expertly crafted sense of uncertainty. It’s not really that there are plot twists and the film would be ruined if I disclosed them, it’s more that the film is so complex that I don’t think in depth textual analysis with a discussion of plot points would serve any purpose. With that said, the horror genre elements include some effects-laden sequences of ghosts and hauntings in a gloomy mansion after dark, an implausibly gory crime scene, and a murderer on the loose. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux transforms scenes that could be campy or ridiculous into something far more ambiguous and anxiety inducing than the average horror film. Personal Shopper’s use of genre is far more related to the French literary and cinematic sense of the fantastique, where numerous natural and supernatural elements create narrative instability.

The film’s sense of uncertainty and ambiguity is deeply unsettling and proves to be a stressful watching experience. It’s not quite on the level of, say, Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (Wages of Fear, 1953), but there is never a moment when you can get lost in the story because Assayas is constantly reshaping and redirecting narrative expectations. In particular, a cameo from great (though still up and coming) German actor Lars Eidinger, also returning from Clouds of Sils Maria, leaves a menacing edge. He makes a brief appearance as Kyra’s cynical lover, Ingo, and nearly succeeds in stealing the film out from under Stewart—which he may have done with more running time. A sense of sexual menace emerges when he is on screen and winds its way through Maureen’s interactions with her phantom text messanger and her hours alone in dark rooms, waiting for a sign from Lewis.

Like Don’t Look Now (1973) or even Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Personal Shopper is obsessed with the potential mania that results from grief and guilt. Where both of those films are about psychological breakdown—and potential supernatural occurrences—following the death of a child, Personal Shopper is about the disintegration of individual identity after the death of a sibling, a twin no less. And like other French productions, such as Zuławski’s tremendous penultimate film, La fidélité (Fidelity, 2000), or Guillaume Nicloux’s underrated Valley of Love (2015), Personal Shopper weaves ghosts into its narrative in an unexpected way. Where La fidélité includes visions of recently dead parents and Valley of Love follows a long-divorced couple who have vowed to attend a meeting with their son, who has recently committed suicide, Personal Shopper doesn’t wink or jump at the appearance of spectres. Instead, it welcomes them in a nonplussed fashion.

Assayas borrows more from Victorian Spiritualism than he does from conventional horror films with Maureen’s declaration that she’s a medium and the offhanded references to seances and ectoplasm. In her historical study of supernatural phenomena, Spook, Mary Roach wrote,

“Ectoplasm lived during the table-tipping, spirit-communing, strange-goings-on-in-the-dark heyday of spiritualism. It was claimed to be a physical manifestation of spirit energy, something that certain mediums—called “materializing” mediums—exuded in a state of trance. […] The spiritualists described ectoplasm as a link between life and afterlife, a mixture of matter and ether, physical and yet spiritual, a ‘swirling, shining substance.’”

This description of ectoplasm is similar to the rare appearance of ghosts within Personal Shopper, who are depicted as sentient, if generally unseen beings with presences—and sometimes motivations—sensed by Maureen.

There is an even stronger connection to the theatrical aspects of Victorian mediumship. In her book Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance, Amy Lehman wrote,

“The experiences and roles made accessible through these different types of trance performances liberated the female medium, as well as her audience, from the boundaries of space, time and history. They operated in a number of different ways: to feed an appetite for scientific inquiry or social critique, to reunite families separated by death, to provide transport to a personal Utopia, or to lay out a road map to Heaven.”

In a sense, Maureen attempts to perform all these functions; she wants to bend time and bring Lewis back, to prove the afterlife is real, and thus prove that there is something more than the unsatisfying life she leads.

Maureen is a “medium” in the sense that she lives between worlds; her life is defined by traveling from place to place, never settling, and existing on the margins of many different types of existence. She keeps everything and everyone at a distance; she only connects with her boyfriend, on assignment in Oman, through Skype. The film offers up no conventional evidence for Maureen as medium, nor does it provide the Gothic trope of the group seance sequence, but makes indirect reference to the harrowing experience of connecting with spirits. For Spiritualists, trances, especially when interrupted or unfulfilled, often led to psychological trauma and real illnesses. Victorian medium Elizabeth D’Esperance wrote, “A sense of terror and agonizing pain came over me …I felt I was sinking down, I knew not where. I tried to save myself, to grasp at something, but missed it; and then came a blank from which I awakened with shuddering horror and a sense of being bruised to death.”

This sense of psychic agony is constant in Stewart’s subdued performance and it is a convincing depiction of depression and anxiety. She doesn’t indulge in hysterics, but serves as an anchor between seemingly divergent plots and between the film’s two separate worlds: supernatural thriller and drama about the emotional malaise of a young woman in the world of high glamor. In this way, Assayas connections the theatrical and performative natures of grief. Maureen’s anonymous text messenger (ghost? lover? stalker?) pushes her past ennui and into transgression: she tries on more and more of Kyra’s clothes—one thing she is forbidden from doing by her employer—begins to sleep at the actress’s home and even masturbates in her bed when Kyra is out of town. She investigates artists obsessed with Spiritualism and ghosts, such as the painter Hilma af Klimt and novelist Victor Hugo, who performed numerous seances while living on Jersey in the Channel Islands.

There are lengthy scenes of Maureen watching documentaries and films about their lives on her smartphone, which I found incredibly distracting and at first disliked. But I found I couldn’t stop thinking about these scenes—evocative of similar moments in Clouds of Sils Maria—and if anything, it’s an elegant way to highlight the character’s sense of loneliness and an inability to fully interact with the outside world. This is also a feature of Clouds of Sils Mara and the role of personal assistant in both films serves as the living embodiment of these essentially distanced, artificial relationships. But where Clouds of Sils Maria flirts with the same themes found in Bergman’s Persona (1966), especially in terms of lines blurred between female identities, performances, masks, and reality, Personal Shopper is about attempting to make connections in a horrifically isolated and isolating universe. In this sense, it is an existential horror film, where ghosts and dead bodies only supplement the Kafkaesque nightmare of human reality.

Though there are many affecting moments of fear and anxiety, the overall tone of the film is frustration; frustration due to an inability to communicate effectively, to experience intimacy, to exorcise the ghosts of the past, and find hope for the future. The ending will likely frustrate many viewers, as it lacks any semblance of a resolution—and Assayas jarringly moves the action from Maureen’s jetsetting European life to a long, dusty journey in Oman. But the film’s conclusion, as its body, is filled with absences and empty spaces, distances widened by technology and travel. It is this sense that Personal Shopper captures even more vividly than Clouds of Sils Maria and it is a brilliant, if obtuse realization of isolation in the modern world from one of the most talented directors currently working.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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