Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ghosting: Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

In the last few years, when attending various parties and gatherings, I started noticing some unusual new social behaviour among people (often women) that I'd never encountered before. When engaged in a conversation that took on its own momentum from the various subjects it raised -- as opposed to the more careful chatter where familiar anecdotes and social gossip provided ample protection from revealing yourself -- there would reach a point when the person I was talking to would simply disappear without a word. Unlike in the past, where a fascinating conversation could lead to friendship, a relationship, or simply a nice evening that the person you were talking to recognized as she disappeared from your life, these folks would simply vanish. There was no way to discern whether it was something you said, fear of a particular kind of intimacy, or even a perfectly legitimate need to move on. The simple courtesy of closing a conversation was replaced by what someone who had acted towards me in this manner justified as 'ghosting.' The point of 'ghosting' seems to be to remove yourself from a conversation without acknowledging that you are in the process of having one. By asserting control in a situation not predicated on needing it, you can protect your sense of self by making yourself disappear. You experience each encounter as one in a series with equal value, where nuance and feeling are erased, or perhaps never even considered. It 's as if the conversation left no residue because the person who does the ghosting never offers a clue to why she needs to disappear. Just as I've started to wonder how much technology and social media and phone texting have had to bear on this capacity to control the uncontrollable, Olivier Assayas's new picture, Personal Shopper, picks up on this new phenomenon in a fascinating way.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) exists in a world full of ghosting. She makes her living as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldst├Ątten), a model/designer who's virtually invisible to her as, a peripatetic and vanishing jet-setter, she leaves Maureen to buy her clothes and accessories. Maureen is also a self-proclaimed medium who claims to be in touch with the spirit world and is currently occupying the house of her twin brother, Lewis, who has just died from a genetic heart problem that they share. Before he died, they had both made an oath that one would contact the other from the next world and now she waits for clues. As Stewart plays Maureen, she is a private person, at a physical distance from everyone (including a boyfriend who only appears on Skype), but not inaccessible. Maureen does starve for contact – Stewart makes you feel her tactile need for intimacy when she breaks her employer's rules and tries on Kyra's clothes – but only if someone reaches out to her. Like most young people today, however, she is wedded to her phone and responds to texts, another form of ghosting. The suspense in Personal Shopper – and its most innovative moments – comes when Maureen begins receiving texts from a mysterious sender who she feels could be her sibling, but may also be a stalker. Like Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) in David Fincher's version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Maureen is so at home in the digital world of information that she has little grasp of the intuitive instincts that connect us to the body language of human contact. Personal Shopper is a sophisticated ghost story that's not so much interested in instilling fear in the audience as in exploring the nature of fear when we lose touch with the most primal aspects of human communication -- when corporeal contact has been replaced by the ephemeral. Assayas has touched on this subject before in his 2002 SF noir Demonlover, but that film was cluttered with too many ideas that didn't quite gel. In Personal Shopper, he's simplified the story, which enables him to delve further into our precarious relationship with technology and how it raises questions of what is to be human.

While Personal Shopper shows some exciting new innovations in Assayas's work, with suspense growing out of a succession of phone texts, some of the plot points fizzle. The kind of apparitions Maureen eventually encounters in Lewis's home, for instance, are better served in the expressionistic horror of The Woman in Black. There's also a murder mystery that goes nowhere and falls apart (except for the scene where Maureen discovers the body – an unsettling encounter with a ghosting individual who becomes flesh in death). But the overall experience of the picture renders its flaws superfluous. Kristen Stewart gives a phenomenal performance that anchors the story in its own twilight zone. Stewart was terrific in Assayas's last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, where she also played an artist's assistant. But her part was more peripheral there than it is here. She is remarkably skillful at playing characters like Maureen, who live at a remove from others, and she never makes them opaque. In the recent video for The Rolling Stones' cover of Eddie Taylor's "Ride Em On Down" (a tale of fear to join Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail"), Stewart is seen driving alone in a post-apocalyptic city like the one Will Smith occupied in I Am Legend. Whether the dead, the vampires, or even the human survivors (like one she meets) are even paying attention to her appear immaterial to Stewart's joyrider, who figures that as long as her car stereo is working and her hips keep swaying, there ain't nothing dead or alive who can stop her. Stewart has a propulsive drive that animates her sullen expressions, giving them a sensual twirl, as if we were watching a female Elvis who could actually act. Maureen's deep need for contact from the beyond is not about escaping from the world, but about bringing deeper meaning to a world that's become nothing more than deadlines and mundane details.

Critic Kent Jones once wrote about Olivier Assayas that his films have a "sharper and increasingly attentive scrutiny of the strange sensation of living in the changing present...[with an] economical sense of storytelling through ceaseless motion." Even with its narrative flaws, Personal Shopper is caught up in that ceaseless motion where the past and the present – and even the eternal – get full consideration and rendering. Thankfully, Assayas isn't a pill about the younger generation and its struggles with the present, or its coming to terms over what they inherit from the past (a theme which brought his finest film, Summer Hours, to an affecting conclusion). His political awareness (at its sharpest in Something in the Air) and his social scrutiny always derive their strength from the humanist legacy of Jean Renoir, even if stylistically he draws from the modernist well of the late Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Personal Shopper may not answer many of the narrative questions it raises – even the source of the phone texts remain a ghostly mystery – but that is actually part of the point, especially in an age where ghosting is a means of being here until you're not.      

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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