Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. (Read our previous entries here.)
When Personal Shopper begins, Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) has been waiting a long time for a sign. A few months prior, her twin brother Lewis died from a genetic heart defect, a condition she also possesses. Both siblings were mediums, with a connection to the spirit world, and they had promised each other that “whoever died first would send the other a sign,” she explains to a friend. As she waits, Maureen works the film’s titular job, cruising around Paris on a motorcycle to buy clothes and accessories for her celebrity client. But she’s also looking for her brother anywhere she can, even spending a night at his empty former home to see if he’s returned to haunt it.
It’s when Maureen is departing on a shopping trip to London that she starts receiving strange text messages on her phone. “I know you,” reads one. For the next 15 minutes, Maureen travels on the Eurostar train in a daze, texting with an unknown person who seems to know what she’s doing and where she’s going. Is she communicating with Lewis? Another ghostly being who has somehow inhabited her phone? Or is this a more mundane, and thus even creepier, situation where someone is stalking her?
As texting, instant messaging, and other forms of digital communication have become routine, pop culture has struggled to depict them in ways that don’t feel boring or immediately dated. Olivier Assayas, the French director of films such as Irma Vep, Summer Hours, and Clouds of Sils Maria (which all feature characters who have come unstuck from normalcy in some way, and are reckoning with their place in the world) is, at age 62, not a member of the smartphone generation. But his movie Personal Shopper was the first I’ve ever seen to grapple with texting in an interesting, unpatronizing manner.
“I know you
And you know me
You’re off to London”
The messages come in line by line, disparate thoughts that range from ordinary observations to frightening, probing, personal questions. The tone of the unidentified texter is near-impossible to perceive, given how fragmented the conversation is. The entire sequence is essentially silent, as Maureen boards the Eurostar, walks up and down its hallways typing on her phone, and then disembarks in London. “Tell me something you find unsettling,” the texter asks at one point, leading to a discussion about horror films. “I’m here, I’m watching you,” comes another message as Maureen gets a coffee in the dining car.
Though it’s a ghost story, Personal Shopper is not exactly a work of horror. It’s a haunted-feeling movie, a tale of wrestling with and overcoming grief told with a supernatural bent. The power of these texting scenes comes from how ambiguous they are, and how easy it is for Maureen to project her own thoughts onto them. She haltingly types out “Lewis??” and hovers, her thumbs trembling, over the “send” button. She’s a woman who believes in the afterlife—when staying at Lewis’s old home, she encountered some sort of spirit presence, though it seemed female in form. Even so, Maureen is fearful of letting herself believe that her brother is there, and is ready to talk to her from beyond.
Given how much space the sequence takes up in the film, nothing much really happens during Maureen’s long, text-heavy trip from Paris to London and back. While she and the unknown number exchange many messages, she can’t quite discern who her phone-pal is, though the movie eventually does give more clues in that regard near the end. Assayas succeeds at evoking Maureen’s sense of dread—by tapping into the fundamental strangeness of having disembodied voices inside our phones that can communicate with us without ever showing their faces.
The Eurostar conversation plays out with the traditional beats of a suspense movie. Maureen hides, putting her phone in airplane mode to stop getting texts, but her curiosity gets the better of her and she turns it back off. There’s a jump scare at one point, as her phone suddenly rings with what turns out to be an unrelated call. Every phone buzz, every mysterious ellipses that suggests Maureen’s anonymous correspondent is typing, feels like it should come with an appropriately brooding musical cue.
Personal Shopper charts Maureen’s journey to accepting both the loss of her brother and her own mortality. But it’s also about the crushing isolation that accompanies the death of a loved one, and the frightening question of what will come next. That tension is ingeniously captured in the idea of texting with a ghost—Maureen is all alone, trying to reach out to someone she can’t see or fully grasp, searching for some deeper understanding of the other side. It’s a beautiful metaphor, perfectly executed, that also happened to be some of the most gripping cinema of the year.
Previously: Get Out
Next Up: The Lost City of Z