Somehow even less easily theorizable than David Lowery’s A Ghost Story and no less opaque in its horror-adjacent vernacular, Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper is ghost story as a polyphonous brew of constantly revivifying altered states and endless self-reconsideration. Although relentlessly frigid, it is a remarkably alive motion picture, provided that life is not a quality of camera motion or character action but a quality of stylistic vanguard-ism and restless thematic wanderer, a film with many competing selves vying for screen-time. It boasts multiple, personal tonal parallel universes, from murderous malevolence to rootless dejection to diaphanous elegance, each a viable film in its own but none enough for Assayas, who refuses to give in to the kind of stability any one mood would require. His film is astonishingly vivacious, but its life essence is not found in a candy-coated palate or schizophrenic, paid-by-the-cut edits but the chaos of modern indeterminacy. It’s found in the creeping tingle that life, like this film, thrives in constant decay and alteration, exists in perpetual erasure, is a walking momento mori of moments that happened just before but are fundamentally different from the now and cannot be recreated.
There is, aghast, nonetheless a story, a tale that is assiduously oblique even as it is Assayas’ most crystalline film ever, one that literalizes – relatively speaking – his career-long implicit pet anxieties: interpersonal connection, alienation, how life transforms human flesh into a ghostly apparition coasting through the world at a slightly removed plane of existence. But Personal Shopper also eludes these very themes in other ways. While Assayas is usually drawn to questions of celebrity and whether fame corrupts the soul, Personal Shopper dodges this issue, or rather, deepens it. Newly arrived in France, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is the personal assistant to celebrity Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), yet Assayas’ concerns about modern ennui are not localizable to explicit cases of fame and fortune; this is no Woody Allen-esque self-song where every decision is composed and codified expressly and solely for the purposes of reminding us how self-inquisitive the director can be about their own fame, a kind of superficial self-critique that is quite self-aggrandizing when it comes down to it.
No, the real meat of the tale is Maureen’s alternate job as a spirit whisperer of sorts, not exactly a ghost hunter but a woman who prowls through apartments for hire as a medium in hopes of contacting the spirit world, or reassuring her employers that this alternate plane is relatively inactive around their premises. Her real goal scoping out her current abode, though, is her suspicion that her recently-deceased brother might speak to her from this current residence, her only hope to awaken her from the trancelike drone of her daily existence. There are literal ghosts here, but Assayas’ phantoms are polychromatic, their forms and idioms unsettled. He has more on his mind than white sheets.
Early on, the film’s questions – readily available in Assayas’ utilization of negative sonic and visual space – suggest a Tarkovsky-like understanding of the dialectic relationship between materiality and spirituality. That this house can hide not only ghosts but Maureen’s desires, anxieties, and anticipations intimates how the corporeal world is a prism for the incorporeal particularities of the mind, how spirituality and belief in something else are not transcendent escapes from the world so much as dialectical interactions with the world. Various moods, ideas, needs, and philosophies become both manifestations of materiality’s possibilities and markers of its limitations. In what is sure to be the film’s signature sequence, a texting conversation between Maureen and someone who may or may not be her brother’s ghost, the cellphone conversation itself suggests that phones are ways of rendering absent people present and present people an almost incorporeal amalgam of words, sentences, and ideas. Technology and modernity destabilize the certainty of peoples’ place in the world. They give us the ability to converse with figments of people, or people who are not physically present. They question whether someone is their self, whether someone is their body, their mind, their soul, their ideas, whether we are or whether we have a body. They disturb the boundaries of space and deterritorialize the world. And if this is possible, the film asks, what then makes a ghost? If the limits of knowledge and truth are essentially unstable, if “presence” is not a literal question of existing in the same room as someone else, if voices and minds and thoughts can travel separate from bodies, what other sorts of fundamental half-presences might we, and the film, consider?
Yet Shopper’s alluring fascination is that it does not follow these ideas to completion, that it leaves them hanging and drifting out into the ether unfulfilled as other problems and concerns raise their voices. The film’s relative impressionism – or at least its refusal to make definitive statements about the materials it depicts, its emphasis on fleeting thoughts and emotions – is less a top-down declaration on Assasyas’ part than a fascinating kindling for his ever-igniting understanding that the world in late capitalism, not to mention the people in it , have much too much going on – or at least they police themselves to feel this way, or are taught to police themselves as such – to slow and stagnate and focus on any one theme. The film flirts with kinesis and stasis, but it jeopardizes their binary nature. Maureen is almost always gliding between rooms as if only tentatively grasping this world, yet she always finds herself walled in to the same apartment, and the same self. She’s stuck in the past, but the film also suggests that everyone around her is trapped in the present-day prison of perpetual-acceleration, which is its own kind of 21st century stagnation masked as motion. Thus is Assayas’ tone so fitting for life in the 21st century: a beguiling mismatch, an intentionally broken encounter between the molasses-like and the frenetic, their offspring being that odd, vulnerable, sometimes insufferable creature known as the 21st century subject-being.
Assayas’ partner in crime, two-for-two now, is Kristen Stewart, arguably the boldest young actress working in the English language today, just as her former screen-partner Robert Pattinson is among the brashest and most self-aware male celebrities in the game. Stewart’s recent string of masterfully self-effacing performances reaches a current apogee here as well. She continually marks her extraordinarily minimalist performative style – often bemoaned as incompetent or insufficiently expressive in her younger years in pap teenage fare – as a new portal into a bruised, wandering soul, a siphon to emptiness, an imaging of a person who seems to exist beneath the realm of human perception. Stewart’s character is always on the move, but she shuffles through the film in a stupor or a wounded lurch, holding the weight of expectations on her shoulders, a weight all the more insufferable because its 21st century incarnation is so invisible. Assayas – and Stewart – understand that the peculiarity of late capitalism is that its chains are often incorporeal. Stewart’s style is modestly magentic, bashfully baleful, galvanizing the screen in the kind of performance that refuses to command our attention when it can spread out and layer itself over the film like a thin membrane of adrift, misplaced abjection.
Another mark of courage? Personal Shopper is a remarkable character study of a mind wracked with grief and locked into status, but Maureen’s ghost’s identity is not a question of personal insanity. Conventional wisdom suggests that “psychological horror” is eminently more intellectual and “courageous” than the bread-and-butter kind, but Personal Shopper erodes the categories between horror of the mind and “real” or corporeal horror. Instead of playing around with the existence of the supernatural, Assayas considers that a superficial and reactionary concern; his film accepts the existence of the supernatural, phantoms, ghosts, and specters, suggesting that we ought to consider that worlds beyond our own, or at least adjacent to it, touch ours. (After all, what is a film but a ghostly after-image of previously-filmed events?) Ghosts are a foundational presupposition rather than a question for the drama here. There is not one ounce of curiosity on the film’s part about making a mystery of Maureen’s mind, with Assayas essentially implying that “psychological horror”, in this and many cases, would be more timid than courageous, essentially a retreat into the presumption – or fallback – of that old chestnut of womanly hysteria. Many other films pretend to offer “psychological horror” as a modernist, mind-shattering experience but cautiously contain the eruption of possibilities and destruction of mindsets they proffer by reserving the possibility that all of their concerns merely reflect the splintered, unstable mind of their one protagonist. That protagonist, in that case, becomes an exception, a social and mental failure suffering from a trauma that precludes their personal consideration of the rational world. The possibility of an immanent critique of rationalism – the possibility that rationalism is not only not sovereign over this one personal mind but is not immanent or certain at all – remains off the table in these films.
But Assayas’ film commits to its belief that our world may not be the rationalist realm we consider it. For Assayas, specters just exist, or at least, a film can imagine a world in which their existence is greeted not as a shock or a key moment but as a simple refraction of the world. Maureen’s trauma is of a more challenging vernacular than simple insanity: she has an illness of the world, an alienation from the present. The loss of her brother, whether or not she is truly speaking to him on the phone, questions how one relates to the living world at all, not only when one’s mind is so fixated on the dead but when the world seems to be rushing past its own expiration debt into the sort of empty forward motion that doesn’t allow for even the momentary possibility of fixation on the past. Assayas’ most astute and pointed observations suggest that Maureen is not only not insane but that she may be the only truly self-aware person in the entire film.
These, for Assayas, are more troubling and pernicious questions than whether Maureen is really seeing what she believes. To question the former, Assayas simplifies– in the best way – the latter, suggesting that she is seeing ghosts, whether or not they be her relative. Until, of course, he moves on to other questions as well, choosing not to recapitulate his film when he can reimagine it by the moment. As opposed to permanently accumulating, the film’s various genres – beyond the obvious ghost story and psychological thriller, we also have a rather wry critique of the twee variant of modern “lost in France” films and a droll comedy – have the effect of centrifugally splitting and tearing at the film, pulling it apart and reorienting its interests and personality. Which is perhaps why Personal Shopper was so frustrating for the same viewers who afforded Assayas the Best Director award at Cannes, a beguilingly paradoxical but perfectly appropriate fit for a consistently slippery, elusive, often dysfunctional creation that is easy to appreciate as artistic craft but much harder to love as a film.
I did love it though. Ultimately, Personal Shopper is as much an artsy ghost story as Dvaid Lowery’s ineffably somnambulant concoction that literalizes its spectral nature in its title, A Ghost Story. But both are ghost stories only insofar as both films resist the category, transcending the confines of spectral cinema. Or, if you prefer a melding of the two, they extend the ghost story. Although one of the protagonist’s is technically undead and the other still living, both are, notional life status aside, liminally corporeal beings whose senses, personalities, bodies, and very selves have descended below the line of social and even personal recognition. The most terrifyingly and existentially unlocking aspect of both features is kindred: that death is not a rational or scientific category diagnosed in the laboratory but a social sensibility about one’s relationship to the outer world, an intimate and personal feeling discoverable only in the rotating and ricocheting tonal planes of life itself. For both films, “life” and “death” are not hermetic, perfectly pin-pointable categories. They each contain the other, frighteningly implying that we all may slip back and forth between the two depending on who acknowledges us or how we understand ourselves.