Ectoplasm is having something of a moment in the current cinema. A cartoonish, 3D version of the supernatural liquid is a central motif of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot, self-consciously flung into the audience’s faces and, in the film’s funniest punchline, all over Kristen Wiig. “That stuff went everywhere,” her character says. “In every crack.” In Olivier Assayas’ follow-up to last year’s Clouds of Sils Maria, it’s vomited up by a ghost about a third of the way through the film.
Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) spots the apparition, first as a blur and then as a fully formed figure, inside a Parisian house previously owned by her recently deceased twin brother. Maureen is a medium, and is in the house because she has vowed not to move on until her dead brother leaves her some sort of sign that he is at peace. The matter is complicated because they are twins and she has the same heart condition that killed him.
As well as being a medium, Maureen works as a ‘personal shopper’, visiting luxury boutiques, trying on clothes and coordinating outfits for her boss, the vaguely insufferable one-name diva Kyra. When, in the course of doing that job, she meets a journalist, she tells him nonchalantly that she won’t leave Paris until she communicates with her dead brother. He gently questions her, but doesn’t respond incredulously. Ectoplasm, communicating with the dead, even the fact that Stewart’s character is named Maureen: in the world of Personal Shopper, what is implausible to the rational mind is accepted by the film’s characters, or at the most sceptical level, questioned with an open mind.
It’s an admirable diegetic consciousness for a film, and it inevitably seeps out of the frame too. As a viewer you have no choice but to sort of just go with what’s happening. And what’s happening is nothing less than an exploration of how we juggle the numbing mundanity of our daily lives with the acute emotions of loss and mortality. Assayas slowly but powerfully coaxes us into the same open frame of mind as his characters, an ambitious task given such weighty thematic concerns. The binary is established from the outset, and subsequently threaded throughout the film. As a personal shopper, Maureen engages in a series of thankless tasks, spending her days “doing bullshit that doesn’t interest me, and keeps me from what does”. What does interest her is trying to connect with her dead twin, and gaining some emotional closure.
The film’s most fascinating set-piece shows how Maureen navigates both of these lives simultaneously. For twenty odd-minutes the film follows her on a cross-border rail journey (Paris to London) as she exchanges many, many text messages with an anonymous, possibly undead stalker. There is nothing gimmicky about how Assayas shoots this sequence. There is none of the ‘text bubbles floating on screen’ that has come to characterise how more insecure directors visualise texting in films. Instead, Assayas’ camera watches Maureen watching her phone. We see her type her responses, see the other person’s replies as they arrive and so on. Crucially, we also hear them. The constant rumbling and wooshing of incoming and outgoing texts slowly begins to induce an escalating sense of dread.
Assayas seems to have become oddly fascinated with how we interact with consumer technology. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Maria Enders’ iPad becomes linked with the anxiety she feels about her rapidly oncoming obsolescence: witness her google image searching the It Girl she’s been cast opposite, or her lengthy Skype conversations with her lawyer. In Personal Shopper, the aeroplane mode on Maureen’s iPhone comes to symbolise how successfully she manages the various demands being made of her. When the messages from her ghostly stalker get too much, or when she just needs to focus on the immediate tasks of her day job, she simply switches aeroplane mode on and puts them on hold. In one scene, she returns to her apartment and switches aeroplane mode back off. She’s promptly inundated with messages in an explosion of menace.
There is a lot happening here for one character, and Kristen Stewart rather expertly traverses the confounding pathway Assayas paves for her. In particular, she has a remarkably skilled ability to act the sensation of being physically in one place but consciously somewhere else. Witness the final act of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. Physically, Stewart’s character is sitting at a diner opposite Lily Gladstone’s, but emotionally she is far from entirely in her thrall. She seems to both long for connection while not quite being able to break through of the emotional constraints forced by everything else going on in her life.
The scene with the journalist in Personal Shopper is another example. Maureen enters her boss’ apartment with a single goal: to pick up some clothes to return to a boutique. Instead of her boss, she’s greeted by a stranger. There is a slight transformation and then restoration in Stewart’s face in this scene. She distractedly answers his questions about why she is there, all the while trying to get Kyra’s attention (she’s holed up in her bedroom, arguing over the phone). When she realises that this is futile, her face relaxes a little, and she lights up a cigarette. She then patiently answers the curious journalist’s questions but after a few moments begins to look elsewhere: the floor, the door, the middle distance. The element of distraction returns to her performance, but she continues answering the man’s questions. Stewart’s performance invites the suggestion that after a few moments Maureen is no longer explaining things for the man’s benefit, she’s working things out for herself.
Curiously Personal Shopper is edited together with quite a few fade-outs and fade-ins. They’re a little oddly timed, and in a couple of instances cut off scenes just as they were emotionally cresting, a couple of beats before I was expecting them to. Most interestingly, the film ends with a slow fade to white. Taken together, these edits have a pleasingly disorienting effect, gently scrambling the film’s sense of time. They help lull us into Personal Shopper’s idiosyncratic rhythm.
The oddly gentle way in which this horror story is told should not be under-emphasised. In one scene we glimpse a figure out of focus in the shot’s background, while Maureen faces towards the camera. He’s carrying a cup of coffee, which he drops, startling her into turning around. But the sequence is not scary. If anything, it’s weirdly comforting. There’s just something about the steadiness of the shot, combined with the film’s gentle fades and open-mindedness that helps stoke this sensation.
Maureen is trying to reconcile the messy relationship we all balance between the physical world of daily drudgery and the internal world of loss and mortality. The film seems to double as some sort of manifesto for living: she might not do so successfully at all times (you can’t just put your entire life on aeroplane mode) but crucially, she’s trying. This is powerful emotional territory for a filmmaker to excavate. All the more remarkably, Stewart manages to completely embody Assayas’ thematic preoccupation. If that’s not the very definition of a good actor well directed, I don’t know what is.
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