(2016, Olivier Assayas)
[Sydney Film Festival 2016]
[5 out of 5 stars]
There's plenty of wandering. In the beginning, we see Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart in a career-best performance) roaming the dark halls and rooms of their old home. She's a medium and is trying to detect a sign from her twin brother who recently died from a congenital heart disease. The scene is quiet but tense. I don't feel fear. But instead, I feel an intense curiosity. You squint at the darkness in every turn she makes. Even the ghostly wisps of light, when they finally appear, don’t instigate terror but a longing to touch it. To know what it is. To talk to it.
The camera follows her around and is rarely stationary. It meanders and searches just like Maureen does. It has a life of its own, almost like it's the very spectre Maureen is seeking. During a scene later when she has an intimate moment by herself, the camera sways to the side and hides behind a wall, almost ashamed of its voyeurism. The shots in this scene meld together in slow dissolves so that the same figure occupies the same frame twice with one disappearing and the other coming into focus. It’s an effectively cinematic way of showing fleeting contact with the afterlife, or some other unearthly presence.
This is the moment when events in the film begin to shift from the physical to the metaphysical - the liminal space between our world and theirs - a dissolve in freeze. By the final scene, which I won't describe in detail, the camera and the character become aware of each other's presence and the screen is filled with blinding white light. They have made contact.
And that's what sits at the heart of this perplexing film: communication. Maureen works as a personal shopper for a celebrity. She spends her days hopping on trains to pick up garments from city to city and dropping them off in her house. They say that clothes communicate who a person is without saying a single word. How strange it is to hand that responsibility over to another person.
The clothes Maureen tries on - a harness top layered with an organza dress - articulates what she cannot in words: she is not in control of her own life and she is vulnerable. She shares the same heart disease her brother died from and she could die from it suddenly like he did. Her brother’s death has left a void in her life, leaving her wandering, lost - in search of something.
Her inability to say what she wants means she best communicates online. Her sole interaction with her boyfriend is through Skype (he lives in another country) and there’s an extended scene involving a string of unsettling text messages from an unknown number. The sender is creepily omnipresent. It knows exactly where she is at all times. It could be her dead brother, or perhaps more dangerously, someone who is living.
This all builds up to a finale that is so eerie it rendered me catatonic. Assayas employs a variety of stock horror genre tricks (floating glasses, a blurred figure in the background, a loud knock) that it almost becomes laughably cliche if not for the realisation that all this stems from a great loss and loneliness. A loved one’s death opens an invisible gap, like a black hole, that draws the energy around it in such a way we become desperate to fill it.
Maureen is desperately looking to make contact with her brother but she is also desperate to make contact with just about anyone who is willing. There is a deliberate focus on technology here - the text messaging sequence occupies a large, uninterrupted chunk of the film - that one can’t help but correlate our relationship with technology, and the way we communicate with it, as something metaphysical.
Our digital selves reside in another, incorporeal world. The presence of those we communicate with are summoned to us through our devices and their voice and presence occupies our physical world, without being physically present. Seeking contact comes from an urge to feel and be felt, whether physically, digitally or spiritually and PERSONAL SHOPPER is about all of these. It asks: is someone else there?