About twenty minutes into Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016), its protagonist, Maureen, lets herself into the elegant but relatively modest apartment owned by Kyra, an international celebrity for whom she works. Reluctantly, Maureen is drawn into a conversation with Ingo, a somber man in early middle age who is sitting placidly on a sofa when she walks in. (She doesn’t know him, but he knows her: He calls her by name. “Good evening, Maureen,” he says.) Ingo says he’s Kyra’s boyfriend, and he’s waiting for the (married) Kyra to get off the phone in her bedroom so he can persuade her not to dump him. Maureen expresses some dissatisfaction about her gig with Kyra, and Ingo tells her he can put in a good word for her at Men’s Vogue. She demurs, and he presses on about the highly respected photographers who publish there.
“Are they free?” Maureen shoots back.
This exchange made me think of the great filmmaker Chris Marker’s 1994 essay “A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo),” in which he observes that the words power and freedom are spoken together three times in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film.
We like to think that Vertigo’s theme is sexual obsession, and it is, but Vertigo is also a movie about freedom, and its opposite. Scottie Ferguson’s old college chum Gavin Elster talks about freedom as something that belongs to the past, a past he would have liked to live in. His venal, labyrinthine plot will derange Scottie, and inadvertently kill the actual object of Scottie’s morbid obsession. Gavin’s criminal bid for a form of freedom puts Scottie in a trap that destroys him twice.
Like that of Vertigo, the plot of Personal Shopper hinges (or at least appears to hinge) on a contrived supernatural ruse intended to cover up a murder. Personal Shopper is the second of two extraordinary films that Assayas has made with the American actor Kristen Stewart. The first, 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, details the push-pull relationship between a famed middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her young, self-aware, plugged-in personal assistant (Stewart). Both characters are trying to make the best of lives that trap them in particular roles; Stewart’s character, Valentine, seems to escape that trap by disappearing.
In Personal Shopper, Maureen is the main focus, rarely absent from a shot. Her trap is perhaps one of her own making, an article of faith she won’t let go of. Maureen had a twin brother, Lewis, deeply loved and recently deceased, the victim of a heart malady that she shares. “I have no idea where I’ll be in six months,” Maureen distractedly tells a doctor who examines her, in the scene directly before her conversation with Ingo. The reason she remains in Paris, she will reveal to Ingo (the audience has some idea of this already, but not the whole story), is that she’s waiting for a sign from her dead brother, based on a pact the two made while he was alive. “I’m a medium,” she says confidently. But while the viewer sees the “spiritual” world that Maureen sees—the scenes in which she looks for presences in a rambling, empty stone house are very effectively frightening in the manner of a good conventional horror picture—Maureen is nagged by doubts about her abilities, her powers. She seeks affirmation by conducting a personal study of the Swedish abstract artist Hilma af Klint, who claimed her inspiration was not of this world. Maureen looks into the séances conducted by Victor Hugo by way of a stodgy, stilted TV movie (concocted by Assayas himself, in a playful touch). Her quest for knowledge, though, does nothing to compensate for, or distract from, her personal void. And it leaves her terribly vulnerable.
An actor of fierce intelligence who is also capable of conveying a palpable unguardedness, Stewart inhabits Maureen with both virtuosity and complete commitment. (Her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria earned her a César Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar; she was the first American actress to win the prize.) Even while engaged in an activity as ostensibly banal as texting, Stewart is mesmerizing. Which is a good thing, because Maureen texts a great deal (as did Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria). She does so mainly with a party who tantalizes her from an unknown number with the possibility that he (from almost the very start of the exchange—perhaps it’s the self-satisfied tone coming from the other end—we assume the texter is male) is her dead brother, Lewis. This mysterious texter draws Maureen out and becomes a kind of psychic confessor, pushing her to act out her desires. Then he turns on her, teasing her with the promise of a revelation that eventually does come, but not in the form Maureen hoped for.
In an interview, the critic Charles Taylor once remarked of Assayas’s films, “[They] are an expression of what I think modern life is like—the beauty of the world today, and yet at the same time people feel out of step with it. There’s a transitory quality to life now. Assayas gets that in movie after movie. He gives you a home in disconnection.” Sometimes that home is a hellish one; see 2002’s demonlover, a mordant examination of extremely alienated white-collar labor and the terrifying corners of the Internet where flesh and fantasy achieve a remote digital union. In Personal Shopper, Assayas’s interest in the ways technology affects behavior and communication extends into what he has called the “invisible world.” We use something called Wi-Fi to connect our devices to the wider world, and we text with our smartphones, sending our disembodied voices through the air in a process most of us really have no understanding of. We trust that the person we think we are communicating with really is that person. Our trust in technology sometimes resembles ardent religious faith. In this atmosphere, perhaps, the idea of a ghost in the machine, or in the cloud, becomes more plausible, more accessible. (What would Victor Hugo, the séance master, make of texting?) Maureen believes that the eerie texts are coming from Lewis, in part, we infer, because she is a medium. But the movie implicitly wants us to consider what a nonbeliever might make of such messages claiming to come from a spectral being. (In an interview for the film, Stewart described her own texting-induced anxieties: “Those. Three. Dots. Ominous. Or not? Or just very titillating. Those three dots can be anything. Oh my God, how many times have you been, like, waiting, and then they go away? ‘Oh, did you delete everything that you were just writing?’”)
The movie’s treatment of its ghost theme is open ended in a larger way too. Assayas twice depicts Maureen visiting the house outside Paris in which her brother had hoped to live. Lewis had intended it as a work residence, a place of freedom for himself and his partner. With his death, that dream is dead, and the house is empty and, apparently, haunted. Maureen discovers that the spirit there is not Lewis but an unknown female in pain, one who cannot leave.
Personal Shopper treats this spirit as an authentic presence, and there are several other scenes in the movie that depict noncorporeal forces at work. One of the most insinuating, and breathtaking, portrays Maureen going to an upscale hotel that the texting “spirit” has instructed her to show up at. No one is there to meet her; Assayas’s for-all-intents-and-purposes objective camera records an elevator door opening on the floor where the appointment was to have taken place. Then the same (we presume) elevator door opens on the hotel’s lobby. Then the two automatic doors at the hotel’s entrance open, one after the other, with no one going through them. Is this some sort of cinematic proof of a ghost? Not necessarily. Hotel guests and others push elevator buttons in error all the time. Automatic doors malfunction—or those doors may just have been opened by a bored employee at the reception desk, screwing around with a remote function. Just as the text sender toys with Maureen, Assayas plays with the viewer, but with crucial questions in mind. In a world that technology is helping to make ever more impermanent and disconnected, what is authentic experience? And what power does the individual have to affect it, or to mediate it? How can we truly recognize, let alone take power over, the forces that box us in? (This line of inquiry harks back a bit to Vertigo, which, in certain of the plot threads it leaves untied, implies that the possession-by-the-dead scenario used to snare Scottie was not merely an earthly con but one that exerted, to some extent, an unearthly power over Scottie and the woman impersonating Gavin’s wife.)
But if the questions posed by this kind of serious cinematic play apply to us all, Maureen’s disconnectedness, and more importantly her search for connection, also seem to be very personal for this director. Clouds of Sils Maria appears, on its surface, to break off from the autobiographical concerns of Assayas’s 2012 film, Something in the Air—which follows Gilles, a clear stand-in for Assayas, as he navigates post-high-school political activism and personal/romantic turmoil—but can in fact be seen as a continuation of them. The earlier film ends with Gilles working in Britain at Pinewood Studios (as Assayas once did) and experiencing an epiphany in an underground cinema—one that simultaneously pulls him back into the past and forward into the future. Clouds is concerned with the worlds of film and theater, and features two female characters at different career poles, but it’s not too hard to see Stewart’s Valentine in that film as a female version of someone like Gilles—that is, a person of acute intelligence and artistic sensitivity—dropped into the twenty-first century and made directionless again.
Valentine’s inquisitive nature is echoed in Maureen, for whom Stewart gives it even stronger definition. Assayas has said that he would not have written the screenplay for Personal Shopper had he not known Stewart. There’s something about the actor’s cool collectedness, seasoned with tension and weariness, that is emblematic of the transitory nature of contemporary life as Assayas’s films address it. Stewart’s work in the Twilight movies made her into a prey-for-paparazzi superstar in what seemed like record time. But it soon became clear that her celebrity was in some respects a bad fit—she could not work up the requisite insincerity to smile through inane photo ops. In this film, she plays a character on the other side of celebrity—Maureen serves and is never served, while Stewart, whatever her attitude may be about the situation, must most often be on the receiving end of the perks of stardom. The actor has accrued sufficient experience, and is sufficiently observant, to imbue the character with a certain self-awareness within her frustrations. “She is in a position where she’s attracted to something, and servicing this thing, but is so much smaller than it and kind of resents it, but is, at the same time, aggrandizing it,” Stewart noted in an interview. Her exceptional talent here walks hand in hand with who she is, which Assayas seems to have tuned in to with remarkable acuity. In doing so, he doesn’t make her a channel for his vision; rather, together they achieve a personal synthesis that results in a shared vision. George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn, Luis Buñuel and Catherine Deneuve, Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert: look at the films they made together and you’ll see more than just a great director working with a great actor. There’s an almost supernatural affinity. Of course, Buñuel would never allow that Deneuve/Séverine/Tristana were him, or that he was all those hers. But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. In Personal Shopper, Assayas and Stewart become one through Maureen, and all three exist in the atmosphere that their existential quandaries form around their spiritual and corporeal selves.
As Maureen rides her scooter around Paris, Assayas’s camera conveys the steady speed, the rush of going somewhere unfettered. Scooters, motorcycles, cars—they’re all associated with freedom. But they all need gasoline to run. And where do you go, when you’re so free, to get more when your tank runs out? When Personal Shopper was released in the United States, a lot of journalists asked both Stewart and Assayas if they personally believed that ghosts exist. The real question animating Personal Shopper, though, is whether freedom exists.