Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper ★★★★

“Every love story is a ghost story” is a bewitching phrase with an odd and apocryphal history. D.T. Max used it as the title of his biography of David Foster Wallace, who had appended it to the postscript of a letter to his friend Alice Elman in the mid-1980s, and who had attributed it incorrectly to Virginia Woolf on The Merv Griffin Show — maybe an inside joke. It reappeared in Wallace’s short-story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and once more in his uncompleted posthumous novel The Pale King; meanwhile the literary critic Michelle Dean, aiding Max in his research, traced its apparent first use to a letter from the novelist Christina Stead to the poet Stanley Burnshaw — suspended by Stead, bafflingly, between upside-down commas: as far as anyone can tell “every love story is a ghost story” materialized as a quote.

Every love story is a ghost story. But is every ghost story a story of love? This is a sentiment Personal Shopper rather bewitchingly suggests. The film tells the story of a young woman named Maureen, played by Kristen Stewart with placidity and deep reserve, whose tedious, demoralizing job it is to buy designer clothing for a celebrity too well-known to buy it herself. By night she is possessed of a more stimulating pastime: Maureen’s begun to cultivate a latent paranormal interest, and has found herself able to feel the presence of — and at times even communicate with — the dead. This obliges the film to strike a divided style. On the one hand it is a workplace drama about professional malaise. On the other it is a supernatural thriller in which a budding medium communes with apparitions. The competing styles are unified, under the deft command of director Olivier Assayas, by the swell of feeling coursing beneath them: grief, sorrow, yearning. And of course love.

Maureen mourns the death by sudden illness of her twin brother, Lewis, and in bereavement abandons herself obsessively to thoughts of the afterlife. It’s Lewis, of course, who Maureen aspires to contact: night after night she returns to his now-empty home, alone, in an urgent bid to pursue any kind of meaningful sign. What she discovers instead is a corollary mystery: texts from an unknown number, enigmatic and teasing, have just the right flavour of intrigue, and soon Maureen is drawn into what she believes — what, indeed, she needs to believe — is a running dialogue by iMessage with a sibling in the hereafter. Assayas, ever the intellectual, makes unmistakable the connection to tradition at play here: belief in spirits, in both their existence and our capacity to communicate with them, has always been tied to innovations in technology. Why not the iPhone, too?

What gives Maureen’s chats with the dead a queer charge is the element of seduction lurking beneath them. There is something sexual — something taboo, never articulated — about the messages she both sends and receives, as there were more than the merely magical making the relationship seem abnormal and somehow unreal. Assayas homes in here on the intensity of all conversation by text message, on the peculiar power of this form of communication and on the ways in which it can still strike us as disturbing. He gets the frisson texts arouse of titillation and fear. And one hardly needs to imagine texting a ghost for the anxieties seized upon by the film to resonate: it’s in the very nature of the medium, Assayas wants to suggest, to kindle unease — to provoke the dread one can’t help but feel at the sight of those little someone’s-typing ellipses. Our phones are as exhilarating as they are frightening. Simply receiving a text from anyone is suspenseful enough.

Of course another to put this is that every text message is a ghost story. Everyone we know, once reduced to words on the screen of our phones, becomes in essence a phantom, an incorporeal figure indistinguishable in the moment from the undead: Maureen texting Lewis would be rather hard to differentiate in character or kind from Maureen texting her boyfriend or her boss. Which is a point Assayas makes elegantly. “We never see each other,” Maureen complains early on about her ever-absent boss. “We just leave each other messages.” It’s the relationship of two strangers, ghosts to one another always. Nor, tellingly, do Maureen and her boyfriend ever share the screen: they’re half the world apart and keep in touch exclusively over Skype. All of Maureen’s relationships operate at some degree of remove. So it’s not only her brother she aspires to contact: everyone she loves, everyone she knows, is a kind of spectre, a veritable wraith. These are ghost stories. And every text puts her in touch with the dead.

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