The Medium Is the Message
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films/Sundance Selects
When Olivier Assayas left off with Kristen Stewart at the end of Clouds of Sils Maria, she disappeared like a spectral creature into the Alpine fog. In Personal Shopper, his superlative follow up, she is unfailingly present—the film’s center of gravity and the anchor of its mise-en-scène—but she occupies a state of existential uncertainty. Like her twin brother, Lewis, Stewart’s Maureen suffers from a heart defect that threatens to claim her life at any moment, just as it recently ended Lewis’s. Unwilling to commit to a real career, she accepts a job as a personal shopper to Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), an insufferable model who communicates largely through handwritten notes and envelopes of cash. Her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin) reaches out via Skype from Afghanistan, a disembodied face present only through the ubiquitous screens that dominate Maureen’s otherwise anonymous life.
Oh, and Lewis may or may not be attempting to communicate with her from beyond the grave, another disembodied loved one in a life that seems only tenuously connected to the physical world of the here and now. Maureen, though she dominates the film first frame to last, is herself barely there, or barely here. This personal shopper describes herself several times as a medium. This may be a way of making sense of her attempts to contact Lewis in the great beyond, but it’s also a kind of elision: a medium is a conduit and a connector, but also only that. Maureen mediates. She shops for someone else; she speaks for someone else; she decides for someone else; she acts for someone else. But who is she?
Assayas seems to have conceived this film as several genre pieces in one—a pseudo horror, a psychological thriller, a melancholy drama about grief—but each of these strands, incomplete in its way, serves a grander and fully realized purpose in the film’s larger ontological excavation of Maureen. In Personal Shopper’s first sequence, Maureen drives up to the house in which Lewis lived before his death. She opens the gate on the road to the house. Then she enters the door, wanders the first floor, and eventually steps out another door to smoke. As is typical, Assayas’s camera moves with her relentlessly, keeping her largely mid frame. This unassuming and mostly silent opening sequence is Personal Shopper in microcosm. For a movie that could be described, fairly, as a mash-up of ghost story, psycho-killer stalker movie, and hyper-capitalist fashion show with an art-history lesson thrown in for good measure, its quiet introduction distills this peripatetic movie down to its not so sturdy emotional core: Maureen enters into a haunted space, wanders through it, and eventually passes to the other side, pausing afterward to contemplate what she has just experienced.
Personal Shopper begins as a haunted house story before spinning off into Maureen’s Parisian fashion-world bubble, which is unexpectedly disrupted by an anonymous, menacing figure who reaches out to her by text message. The connection between the movie’s thriller subplot and its supernatural element is indeterminate—who’s to say that a ghost can’t text, after all?—and so the less said about how Assayas connects these disparate strands, the better. Maureen’s assailant is no more or less physically present than the other figures who dominate her life, the boyfriend whose Skype calls she ignores, the absent globetrotting employer (“I never see her. We leave each other messages,” Maureen says of Kyra, as if this makes her in any way different from anyone else in her life), or Lewis, whose ghostly interventions, if he is the one responsible for them, are for the most part fairly mild (a cross scratched into a wall here, a faucet turned on there, an occasional broken glass).
Despite how abstract and conceptual this all sounds, Assayas nevertheless manages to imbue the film’s second act with a sense of true danger and dread. Leave it to this particular filmmaker to mount a thrilling suspense sequence with little more than a buzzing cell phone, a moving train, and a gifted lead actress. Such passages are almost too-perfectly auteurist—completely encapsulating Assayas’s longstanding interest in technology’s effects on daily life, his preoccupation with the unmoored experience of space and travel in an era of capitalist globalization, his mastery of moving cameras, and his remarkable ability to collaborate with actors. His consistency has come to be one of his greatest virtues as a filmmaker: Assayas has the uncanny ability to riff, expand, and build upon his already exceptional oeuvre in ways that feel in keeping with what came before without ever coming off as repetitive.
The iPhone setpieces, in their deceptive simplicity, also expose Personal Shopper’s broader ambitions. Were Assayas content to simply scare the hell out of his audience, all he would really need is Kristen Stewart and some iMessages. With Personal Shopper, though, he’s taken on something far more ambitious. How else to explain the disproportionate amount of screen time devoted to scholarly analyses of the life and work of the pioneering abstract Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, who herself dabbled in a kind of mystical spiritualism that shaped her work? I wouldn’t begin to claim, in the space of a few hundred words and after just two viewings, to be able to make sense of this apparent digression. And yet it’s clear that the reference to Klint establishes a context for and continuity to Personal Shopper’s invocations of ghosts, séances, and mediums that connects to art history and its relationship to naturalistic representation, far beyond the narrow terms of art cinema or horror movies.
Regardless of how one might choose to make intellectual sense of Personal Shopper, it has a raw emotional effect. Where Clouds of Sils Maria functioned as a pas de deux between Juliette Binoche and Stewart, this is essentially Stewart’s solo, and without betraying her dispassionate, bordering on somnambulant veneer, Stewart taps into something deeply sad and searching with her performance here. At the height of her confusion and fear, when receiving text messages from maybe her dead brother or, if not, someone who really wants to fuck with her head, Stewart’s Maureen betrays an unexpected desperation. “Do you want to be someone else?” Unknown asks. “Yes,” she types in response. She is, after all, a medium.
I would never want to spoil this remarkable film’s remarkable final scene. But I would encourage anyone who watches Personal Shopper to keep the earlier text exchange in mind when considering its closing moments. Personal Shopper ends with a question, but it resolves with existential certainty—previously elusive, but palpable, like standing for the first time on solid ground.