The Spirit of Things: On “Personal Shopper”




LATE IN OLIVIER ASSAYAS’S Personal Shopper, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) sits in consultation with an employee at Cartier, trying to decide what jewels to take to Kyra, her employer. Kyra is some kind of celebrity who has no time to do “normal things,” so Maureen does them for her. The Cartier employee assures Maureen that the bracelet he holds in white-gloved hands is brand new and “hasn’t been seen.” Maureen says, “That’s important.” These jewels are valuable not because they are beautiful or precious but because of the work they do, their communicative power: their world debut on Kyra’s wrists will allow Kyra herself to debut again, sparkling and new. Maureen’s job is to find the articles with which to decorate Kyra’s body and thereby bring her to enviable, covetable, photographable life. However, Kyra has a strict rule that Maureen is not permitted to try these items on herself, a rule that allows her both to maintain control over her employee and to protect the sanctity, the spirit, of all of her things.

A commodity, Marx wrote, “is a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” There is nothing especially mysterious about the fact that human beings transform the world through their labor; it is only through such labor that the natural world becomes our world. But in making something into a commodity to be exchanged on the market, we thereby make the world strange, “transcendent,” and “mystical.” This is because, for Marx, we fetishize commodities, which, like religious fetishism, involves treating the products of our own activity as if they were endowed with independent life and dazzling value. Even more nightmarishly, in a labor market we also fetishize ourselves by turning ourselves into sellable things. To see human beings as commodities is to see them — us — as both denigrated and reanimated by the power of the market, mortified and brought back to life with a price. This is why Marx thought commodities hover in an atmosphere of “magic and necromancy,” of enchantment and death.

The unsettling power of Personal Shopper lies in its suggestion that the life we share with objects is a life led among the dead.

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Maureen is waiting. She works for Kyra so that she can stay in Paris where her twin brother Lewis died some months earlier from a “malformation,” which she also shares. A self-described medium, she is waiting for a sign from Lewis. And once she receives the sign, then, she says, “I’ll live my life and let it go.” Until then, Maureen will spend her days and nights moving between worlds: her own tiny flat; Kyra’s palatial modern apartment; the crowded, lonely streets of Paris; and a haunted house, where Lewis lived and where Maureen yearns to meet him again. Somehow Maureen’s deciphering of the sign is also relevant for the house’s attractive young buyers, who want to be assured, not that the house isn’t haunted, but that it is haunted by a benevolent presence. So Maureen’s necromantic practice is not merely a work of love or grief. At stake is also a sale, an exchange, which would allow these new spirits to comfortably inhabit the old house.

That there are ghosts and characters who nonchalantly believe in ghosts, and that the film explicitly shows us ghosts who “vomit ectoplasm,” as Maureen casually reports, all functions to position Personal Shopper in the horror genre, and thus presents the world of the film as a world other than ours. And yet this movie is also one of the first serious examinations of a new and defining feature of contemporary life, the gig economy, where work is at once fragmentary, temporary, and incessant, and where much of this labor involves carrying out the basic tasks of living for persons who can afford to have this work done for them. Which is to say: This work involves standing in for others, doing whatever they need, making their choices, being their bodies. As a study of such labor and its human costs, Personal Shopper should thus be seen not only or primarily as a film about ghosts but as a film about work.

Indeed, most of the film follows Maureen at work, as Kyra’s assistant, or rather, as her double. In this capacity, Maureen doesn’t engage in any meaningful activity or productive labor; she is rather, we might say, a medium for Kyra’s needs, an empty vessel that puts Kyra in touch with the material world, a decipherer of her wailings. Maureen scoots around Paris saddled with shopping bags; she trains to London to pick up a dress; she buys $2,000 handbags; she updates Kyra’s personal computer and organizes her wardrobe. She lives out Kyra’s life. Maureen’s job is impermanent and precarious — Kyra’s mood swings require great delicacy and coddling, where Maureen has to engage with her less as a competent adult than as an unpredictable, all-powerful toddler who breaks promises and refuses to listen. At one point, Maureen must stand in for Kyra on a photo shoot, and one of the assistants says, “I’ve heard she’s a monster.” Maureen is thus a medium for two twins with whom she can neither communicate nor be rid of, a monster and a ghost.

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After being visited by the vomiting ghost, Maureen sets off for London for Kyra’s dress. En route she receives a text from an unidentified caller: “I know you.” The next stretch of the film is organized around their ongoing exchange, which ranges in tone from flirtatious to threatening, from devastating to banal. The person on the other end is either Lewis, or Kyra’s slightly menacing boyfriend Ingo, or someone, something, entirely unknown. As Maureen meets with shopkeepers, buys train tickets, drinks Kyra’s vodka, and eventually — with pleasure and trepidation — puts on Kyra’s clothes, her phone vibrates and growls, calling her back to hold it again, a glowing portal around which Maureen’s whole body tenderly curls.

Any movie seeking to depict the present age would strain credibility if it did not show its characters cradling phones, hunched over screens, thumbs jumping. Assayas spends huge amounts of screen time on the action of texting, using shot-reverse-shot between Stewart’s face and the phone’s. No matter what she is doing in the world, Maureen’s phone retains the power to jolt her out of it and pull her into a different, virtual, time and space, putting her in intimate communion with the unknown. Yet texting does not make for compelling cinema. Or perhaps in his effort to capture the ordinariness of text-based communication, Assayas simply does not make it weird enough. Because it is weird, this form of attachment, where we deposit secret confessions into devices, sometimes without knowing much about the presence on the other side. It is weird to consider what happens to communication when a human face is replaced by a screen, when a living presence is replaced by a digital absence. Can the voice still carry? Does the meaning translate? Maureen’s interlocutor asks at one point, “Do you want to be someone else?” She says that she does but doesn’t know who. And yet it seems it is precisely the anonymity and opacity of this relationship that opens up the space for her to recognize her desire to be other.

The best scenes in the film are those that attend not to humans but to things and the ways they work: phones, clothing, doors, water glasses. The most unnerving sequence involves no human beings or ghosts at all. After gazing at Maureen gazing at herself in one of Kyra’s dresses, the camera tracks backward down an empty hotel hallway. It stops as an elevator opens. Down in the lobby, the elevator doors close. The camera glides backward again and pans toward two sliding doors, which open one after the other, automatically, autonomously, out onto the street. Then we see the hotel from a distance, as tall trees reel in the wind.

One way to read this scene is as indirect evidence of the presence of the ghost, invisible yet not undetectable. Another option is to see this sequence as studying the uncanny responsiveness, the sensitivity, of our various human products. There is something strangely vital in their repetitive automatism: the way the doors gasp open and the elevator announces its arrival. The camera, too, is a machine of human making, automatically registering the presences around it. In this way, the scene unfolds like a private interchange, a silent acknowledgment, between camera and objects, a glimpse of our world without us, the queer spiritualism of our objects.

While Maureen spends most of her time engaging with things rather than people, she does enjoy one meaningful conversation with Erwin, the gentle man who is now dating Lewis’s widow. Together, they invoke Lewis: Erwin confesses feeling awkward, given that he is “replacing” Lewis. He remarks on how special Lewis was. Maureen confesses that she tended to follow Lewis, and that Lewis tended to take things too far. While the content of the conversation is moving and unusual — dead brothers, psychic powers — what makes the scene eerie and magical is its simple depiction of an honest connection holding between two human beings. It is, in fact, the only genuine communication in the entire film, the only time we see two people paying undivided attention to one another. In a world with so many ghosts and machines, this brief moment of acknowledgment feels almost miraculous.

The last scene of the film has Maureen in a house in the desert, looking on as an empty tea glass hovers mid-air before smashing to the ground. At first she believes it to be Lewis, then a stranger (“I don’t know you”), then possibly Lewis again. Her tentative final question is: “Lewis is it you? Or is it just me?”

It is not finally clear what would be more frightening: confirming that there are real ghosts in our world and that we are not alone, or confirming that there are in fact none, that it’s just us, and all of our stuff.

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Francey Russell is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. She works on issues in moral philosophy and subjectivity, and how these get worked out in art.


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