Personal Shopper (2016)

Directed by Olivier Assayas


Personal Shopper is sold as a type of thriller, a supernatural thriller to be exact, but that is an almost forgettable aspect of the story.  The movie is a character study, following Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) around the boutiques and creaky houses of Paris as she deals with the stress of her twin brother’s death and possible remaining spirit.

It’s at first a scary film, complete with all the brooding cinematography and sound design you expect of a horror film, but this isn’t a horror film.  Maureen even tells a mysterious pen pal that she doesn’t like horror films.  The horror is intertwined with the way Maureen sees the world at present.  She is somewhere between the dead and the living, not just because she is a medium, but because the only person she seems to have a real connection with is dead.

So while it begins like a horror film, with Maureen working her way through a large, empty, most likely haunted mansion where every footstep creaks across the ancient wood, making Maureen feel heavy with the burden of whatever emotional stress she’s carrying, by the end Personal Shopper is something much more beautiful but just as haunted.

There’s a single shot near the end of the film, following Maureen’s conversation with the new boyfriend of her brother’s girlfriend, that might sum up the movie even if it’s not trying to.  It’s a shot that would work well regardless of context.  It’s just so quietly simple and beautiful and eerie too.  In the shot, Maureen sits in silence, definitely thinking about her brother but still unable to communicate with him.  In the background we see a bearded man watching her.  He drifts through the kitchen, separated from us by the kitchen window, and as he crosses to the door, carrying a mug, he slowly disappears until we see the mug suspended in thin air.  Maureen doesn’t see this, of course, and she only notices when the mug is dropped to the ground.

So the end of this moment is a very familiar “ghost” moment.  There’s a loud noise and something breaking, and it’s a moment that a doubter could explain using some combination of wind and human negligence.  Maureen theorizes that the mug was left too close to the edge, though she probably believes it was something else.

But taking this moment and working back a little, so we see the spirit for the first and only time in the film, reworks the way we could interpret these vaguely ghostly moments.  The movie takes a moment you could explain away with science, and shows that it’s definitely not science.  Even if the movie isn’t trying to convince you of the spiritual afterlife, it’s making it clear that this is how Maureen thinks.  We are firmly in her headspace.

Maybe the spirit isn’t there and this is just what Maureen imagines.  It’s the climactic moment of the film, with everything stripped away so that all Maureen has to sit with is the question of whether her brother is really there.  And we’ve seen enough to know that she wants her brother to be there.

Throughout the story, Maureen is very much in pain.  Kristen Stewart seems to have a habit of playing these silent, brooding types, and it works well here.  She has come to Paris only because it’s the place where her brother died, and she figures his spirit, if anywhere, must be here.  To pay her rent, Maureen has become a personal shopper for a famous, wealthy designer named Kyra, but Maureen loathes her job as well as her employer.

Maybe she is simply miserable, but it starts to feel like Maureen wants to hate her job and her life.  If you don’t like this film, you probably see her as a bit whiny, someone who indulges in her own pain, blowing it out of proportion.  Similarly, if you’re a skeptic, you likely feel the same way.

But this movie isn’t about what you think of Maureen, it’s about what she thinks and how she sees the world.  And through that maybe we can imagine a connection to the afterlife and what that may mean.

So this is what I’m getting at, I suppose.  There are movies, usually sci-fi movies, in which the premise makes you ask a question such as “what if the afterlife could be proven to exist?”  Or maybe there’s the world of Melancholia where the world is ending, or a movie (I forget the name) in which there are two earths, maybe it’s called Two Earths.  These stories force you to consider the consequences of certain revelations which we, in reality, know not to be true.  Typically you will buy into the premise because it’s the premise.  You have to or you’ll hate it.

Personal Shopper does the same thing but on a much quieter level.  The world of Paris in this film doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  It’s normal, the world as we see it.  But then we see that there is a lot going on.  I mean, we do see a ghost vomit plasma, as Maureen describes it.  So this is close to a fantasy film, but it’s all limited to our protagonist’s perspective.

By limiting it to her point of view, the film makes a better case that what we see in the movie, though almost otherworldly, could be real.  It’s all about perspective right?  You can’t dismiss someone else’s perspective even if you disagree with it.  It’s like that philosophical question as to whether colors look the same to all of us.  Is green to me the same to you?

Now, Maureen knows that not everyone believes in the spiritual afterlife.  Even her boyfriend, whom we get some exposition from in a couple skype conversations, makes it clear he doesn’t believe.  So Maureen isn’t walking the streets preaching the good word.  She keeps it to herself.  This isn’t about trying to believe or not, it’s about dealing with her reality.

I’m getting lost in this.  Basically, Maureen is quietly suffering in an unseen world.  She’s so quiet that when a mysterious person starts texting her, she doesn’t ignore him, block him or report him.  This starts after the most extreme of her ghostly encounters, and she considers that this number might be her brother or another spirit reaching out to her.

She continues talking to this person, ignoring or choosing to ignore the obvious threat he poses (particularly from the POV of a movie audience which has been conditioned to expect the worst), and her willingness to talk to him makes sense considering her eagerness to communicate with her brother.  She’s looking for connection in the cracks between and underneath humanity.  She has the most conversation in the movie with her phone and with herself, trying to reach out to the spirit.  When it comes to real, physical humans, she only says as much as she has to.

So the story is about a woman who needs to believe in something.  Her brother died from a heart condition that she shares with him, so there is something there about her wanting to know that life goes on after death since she herself expects to be blindsided by death.  It could kill her at 100 or at 27, she will never know.

So at the end of the film, the spirit follows Maureen to another country.  When another mug breaks, one she sees clearly suspended in mid air, she knows it’s her brother, and we do too since we’ve already seen him break a glass earlier.  Maureen begins to communicate with him, but he can only communicate with her through ominous “banging” noises, basically the way we expect ghosts to communicate.

Maureen begins to bathe in the comfort that he is at peace, but she realizes she may only be hearing what she wants to hear so she challenges herself and the spirit, declaring that this isn’t her brother.  Her last lines are, “Lewis is it you?” before she adds, “or is it just me?”

By the end, then, the film and Maureen herself acknowledges that this is just her point of view, and the only concrete thing in the story, aside from the ghosts and the mysterious texter and a murder which is shocking but an aside from the main story, is Maureen’s ability to live with herself.

Personal Shopper is a beautiful film about grief and mourning.  I’m still working my way through it, trying to understand all that it’s saying, but all I know is that I had chills at the end.

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