The Mournful Materialism of “Personal Shopper” (2016)

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UK poster for Personal Shopper. Image source: bloody-disgusting.com

Personal Shopper is Louder than Bombs by way of The Legend of Hell House: an ambitious, undeniable art-house flick that alienates and fascinates in equal measure. It’s a meditation on the “limits” of grief and the question of human identity. How well can we hope to know others if we know little of ourselves?

So of course, Shopper won’t be to everyone’s taste (at the screening I attended, an older couple abandoned it near the end).

Though it bears noting that it is also more accessible and streamlined than Olivier Assayas’ previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria. But that’s like saying the squeamish person who soldiered through Salo can now pull up their britches and indulge in some Cannibal Holocaust; it’s a differentiation that ultimately doesn’t mean much.

Assayas creates tension in unconventional ways: he makes a prolonged (several-minute) sequence of texting – keep an eye on the autocorrect suggestions – that takes place at a train station, on a train, at another train station, and on another train, the stuff of dazzling, Hitchcockian unease. Marion Monnier’s editing is swift and clever, immersing us in a back-and-forth that may have mortal consequences. Likewise, the din of crowds, streets, and mechanical noise adds texture to an already unnerving landscape.

An ominous tone is set right from the start, as a sedan cautiously goes down a leaf-strewn lane, the camera descending behind the pointed gate of an empty estate belonging to the recently-deceased Lewis, brother to Maureen (Kristen Stewart, she of the titular occupation). The title card appears in blood-red letters which, in addition to the obvious horror connotation, could also be construed as the inescapable bond of shared DNA.

Like her brother, Maureen is a medium (see also: Florence Tanner and Ben Fischer in Hell House), and spends her evenings at the foreboding estate, attempting contact with Lewis. Friends of the family wish to purchase the house – and are fine with a ghost wandering the grounds – so long as the presence is “benevolent.” This is a fascinating, matter-of-fact, and weirdly realistic subversion of horror’s shopworn spook-house cliches.

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Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. Image source: variety.com

The scenes inside the house – the opening is a doozy – are wonderfully effective, and not only speak to the literal hollowness of space, but Maureen’s own enigmatic quality. Stewart has long been derided as an inexpressive performer, but there are many sequences in Shopper where she’s a mesmerizing presence.

Assayas exploits lighting in interesting ways, as well: from the surreal, almost painted landscape outside the home of Kyra (Maureen’s high-maintenance employer, played by Nora von Waldstatten) to the dead-of-night murkiness of Lewis’ home. The creaking floorboards and reluctant give of old doors and windows is unnerving enough, but there are times when Maureen’s facial features become sunken and skull-like, or disappear altogether. Staring down a second-floor hallway, she becomes a featureless void from the neck up, and the way Assayas holds on this image is as genuinely frightening as a similar moment at the end of Augusti Villaronga’s In a Glass Cage. It hits on a level beyond basic horror stylistics to become something existentially unsettling.

Based on her tomboyish appearance and introverted demeanor, Maureen’s career seems rather perplexing. Little backstory is given on her family, and her relationship with long-distance boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin) is something she almost actively avoids. A late-occurring scene, where Maureen defies the rules of her trade and tries on some of Kyra’s outfits (which she hand-picked herself), gives way to a transference of sorts. Assayas keeps it ambiguous, leaving the images to explain themselves, rather than connecting the dots with dialog. Maureen’s shift from a passive errand girl to an individual who, for one fleeting night, becomes an outward manifestation of what she’s been holding inside, would be similar to Mulholland Drive…if she were able to escape her “gift,” and the extraneous doubts that keep her fixed in a position of servitude. Like a ghost, she wishes to walk unseen among the citizens of the world, and her fragility makes her the polar opposite of the domineering Kyra.

The film’s discussion of the paranormal and ESP exists in a bubble of acceptance, and a scene in which Maureen talks to her sister-in-law’s new fiancee about Lewis’ lingering presence is refreshingly candid (they could be talking about the weather, it’s so laid-back). It’s interesting how Assayas juxtaposes the dry humanity of scenes like these against tropes culled from classical ghost stories – a levitating glass; loud “thumps” of spectral communication – while avoiding the eye-rolls that come from a decades-old familiarity with such tricks. Personal Shopper is an inversion of a subgenre that has too often been fixated on the dead over the living, and perhaps, by suggesting a crossover between the two, hints at something more genuine and authentically “spiritual” than what’s come before.

We get some ghost-vomit, sure, but it’s contextual ghost-vomit.

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Personal Shopper is currently in limited theatrical release.