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.