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Is anyone there—online or off?

Katerina Sakkas: Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper

In Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a woman in limbo. In Paris, she spends her time with senses attuned for some sort of sign from her recently dead twin brother while working in a desultory way as a buyer of couture for a high profile actress. To be in limbo is to wait; “waiting” is Maureen’s default description for her current situation whenever friends or acquaintances ask.

Personal Shopper evokes the insurmountable greyness of grief; the drabness that descends after someone vital is gone. This is a world defined by what’s missing. While Assayas cleverly incorporates aspects of the crime thriller and supernatural horror, it’s the hollowness of bereavement that’s the crux of the film. Almost all Personal Shopper’s emotional impact in this regard emanates from Stewart’s performance. Contained, weary, grungy, sad, she performs her professional duties with the efficiency of her similarly employed character in Assayas’ 2014 feature Clouds of Sils Maria, minus the alacrity.

There’s something very believable about her, a lack of affectedness in her fast-paced, rather flat vocal delivery that stops just short of monotony. Lank-haired, she slouches, unenthusiastic, occasionally surly—not petulant, but a young woman patently weighed down. Stewart clearly fascinates Assayas, who slyly alluded in Clouds of Sils Maria to mass media intrusions into the star’s personal life, while here strongly capitalising on her reputed taciturnity and guardedness.

In keeping with Stewart’s understated demeanour, the camera follows her closely in casual documentary style, lulling the viewer into a sense of the quotidian, until out of this very mundanity arises a jarring incident that triggers an escalation in narrative suspense and, ultimately, terror.

Viewed in terms of the horror film, Personal Shopper is unusual in presenting various genre archetypes in a relatively everyday light, while rendering seemingly unremarkable subjects uncanny. Maureen refers to herself in a matter-of-fact way as a “medium.” Her nocturnal attempts to connect with her brother’s spirit in the ramshackle Parisian mansion in which he lived are initially presented as business as usual, the camera following her at close quarters in the same way it does when she’s flipping through the racks for her elusive boss at yet another luxury boutique.

Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper

Interestingly, Assayas bypasses contemporary cinematic ghost tropes (the pallid, hollow-eyed, alarmingly agile spectres that leap out of the shadows in a lot of mainstream Japanese, American and Korean horror) in favour of the quaint rituals and iconography of the mid-19th to early 20th century spiritualist movement with its tapping, spirit photography and ectoplasmic eruptions. In her frustration at not being able to contact her brother, who had promised to leave her a sign, Maureen seizes upon passing conversational references to various spiritualist luminaries like Swedish proto-Abstractionist painter Hilda af Klint, who claimed the making of her groundbreaking works was directed by spirits.

As Maureen delves into spiritualist history via online search engines while fielding text messages and Skype calls, the film increasingly becomes a mash-up of 19th century arcana and the restless distraction of the digital era. Rubbing shoulders with Olde Worlde apparitions are the disembodied presences of modern communications technology, enticing us with signs of life, but ultimately just as capable as the 19th century seance of isolating the participant in a haze of uncertainty. Who are we really ‘talking’ to? Is there anyone there at all?

By referring to these two eras, Personal Shopper underscores the essential loneliness and yearning of grief, with its corresponding susceptibility to the lure of “invisible presences,” as Maureen terms them. Kristen Stewart's performance makes the film’s themes acutely relatable.

Personal Shopper, writer, director Olivier Assayas, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, editor Marion Monnier, sound design Nicolas Cantin, Nicolas Moreau, Olivier Goinard, production design Francois-Renaud Labarthe, distributer Rialto, 2016

RealTime issue #138 April-May 2017 pg.

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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