By using text messages as a source of terror that morphs into eroticism, Personal Shopper acknowledges and subverts horror traditions. This is the fourth essay in our special issue on Personal Shopper, which you can read in full here.
The message comes from an unknown number: “I know you.” As Maureen (Kristen Stewart) — a medium who is grieving over the recent death of her brother, Lewis — goes through Paris transit security, the messenger continues: “And you know me…You’re off to London.” When Maureen responds with her own text, demanding that the messenger reveal her or his identity, the answer is teasingly ambiguous: “Have a guess.”
So begins Personal Shopper’s 20-minute centerpiece: while commuting from Paris to London and back, Maureen engages in a series of uneasy SMS exchanges with this mysterious, ghost-like texter. Writer-director Olivier Assayas shoots this scene from Maureen’s perspective, often framing and editing in a quick shot-reverse shot style that gives equal space to the messages and Maureen’s reactions. By maintaining our intimate proximity with Maureen, Assayas achieves central focus on her affective responses.
Early in the conversation, Maureen considers asking the anonymous texter whether he or she is Lewis’ ghost. She starts to misspell his name, reconsiders, and then sends the request, waiting with bated breath. There’s no immediate response, and Maureen puts her phone away. When she returns to the conversation, the messages are threatening and sexually forthcoming in equal measure: “I want you,” writes the messenger. “I want you and I will have you.” Eventually, the persistent messages motivate Maureen to transgress; she tries on her boss Kyra’s dress (something she’s forbidden to do) and reports back to the mysterious texter: “I did it.” The messenger’s response: “You’re scared.”
That the mysterious texter may be Maureen’s brother complicates the sequence, initially reducing the sense of threat. The mere possibility that Lewis may be on the other end of this dialogue consequently allows Maureen to develop a fast intimacy with the texter. This problematizes the sequence: if the messenger is not in fact Lewis, then Maureen’s vulnerable emotional state has been exploited for unknown ends (is there a voyeuristic ghost manipulating her in order to watch her get undressed?). Alternately, if the messenger is Lewis, then Maureen’s erotic transgression bears incestuous implications.In Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas and his close collaborator Kristen Stewart provide two iterations of the ghost story.Click To Tweet
This long and tonally complex sequence is bookmarked by the film’s most openly supernatural images. In the scene before Maureen receives her first message, a threatening spectre corners her inside Lewis’ dark, abandoned house, spewing ectoplasm in her direction. Shortly after the central SMS sequence culminates in sexual release, that same ghost materializes in a corner of Kyra’s bedroom. If it’s not Lewis, the messenger might well be the still-living human suspect at the center of the film’s murder-mystery, but it might just as well be a cyber-connected spirit with a perverse fixation on Maureen.
In Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas and his close collaborator Kristen Stewart provide two iterations of the ghost story: Maureen’s attempts to contact Lewis, having made an oath that whoever died first would send a sign; and Maureen’s SMS exchange with an anonymous texter, potentially from the beyond. Texting provides the medium for the film’s most overtly horror-driven sequence, characterized by unease, fear, tension, and eroticism.
The messenger’s disembodiment heightens Maureen’s transgression: her eroticized act may or may not have an audience. The possible presence of an audience elevates risk and therefore intensifies the excitement, as well. Whether through physical absence left behind by death, or corporeal spaces afforded by technological communication, the film closely follows Maureen’s navigations through the unresponsive, the invisible, the unknown.The film closely follows Maureen’s navigations through the unresponsive, the invisible, the unknown.Click To Tweet
Assayas repeatedly shows communication through digital technology as resulting in both presence and absence. Through Skype, Maureen has emotionally distant conversations with her boyfriend. On her iPhone, she watches videos about deceased symbolist painter Hilma af Klint. Maureen’s boyfriend and, less literally, the deceased Klint are “present” only in that they can be seen through a screen.
Because a text message’s author could be anyone and anywhere, the messages are scary — especially when their content emphasizes their surveillance-like nature with an erotic bent: “I’m watching you” and “I’m in London.” This pushes Maureen to respond, in kind, agreeing to the unknown messenger’s request to go to a hotel room. She arrives at the desk in a trench coat, heels, and one of Kyra’s dresses, as though for a sexual assignation. When she makes her way into the room, she takes a selfie in the hotel mirror, posing and holding the dress tightly against her body. The entire scene bears all of the tropes of an illicit affair, minus the physical presence of a partner. Indeed, the figure’s very existence as a corporeal being remains uncertain.Assayas repeatedly shows communication through digital technology as resulting in both presence and absence. Click To Tweet
By using technology, particularly text messages, as a source of terror that morphs into eroticism, Personal Shopper situates itself knowingly and brazenly within horror traditions. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) also foregrounds then-contemporary technological advances (the relatively early Internet) to highlight both its dramatic concerns and its horror. Similarly, many horror films have incorporated phones into their terrifying sequences. Black Christmas (1974), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Ringu (1998) are some of the most famous examples. Perhaps most strikingly similar to Personal Shopper is the opening of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), in which an unknown caller asks Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) if she likes scary movies. Similarly, in Personal Shopper, the ominous unknown messenger says, “Tell me something you find unsettling,” to which Maureen responds, “Horror movies.”
Traditionally, horror movies feature links between eroticism and fear — specifically, between death and carnal “release.” For example, the Friday the 13th series boasts multiple sequences that cut between the advancing Jason Voorhees and various camp counselors as they get undressed and get it on. As the counselors’ sexual energy builds up, Voorhees draws closer — often, the characters’ orgasms are either punctuated or cut off by the killer’s phallic machete. Killers like Voorhees emerge from the dark at inopportune moments to brutally extinguish their victims for their transgressions, often to forward a conservative ideological agenda, whereby transgressors (especially teenagers engaging in premarital sex) are punished for their “impurity.”Personal Shopper subverts horror traditions in part because the threat is not evidently corporeal.Click To Tweet
Personal Shopper subverts this genre tradition in part because the messenger is not evidently corporeal. Rather than maintaining a purely threatening position, the messenger’s “absence” allows the film to foreground Maureen’s interiority and psychology rather than her instinctive, panicked reaction. Unlike the killers in those films, Personal Shopper’s unknown messenger possesses no “voice”; a long series of text messages are its only trace. The film emphasizes its threatening figure’s physical ambiguity: when Maureen sends a text message asking, “R u a man or woman?”, the messenger responds, “What difference does it make?” When Maureen questions whether the messenger is alive or dead, she receives no answer. The text messaging sequence acts not only as an exercise in suspense, but also as an extension of Maureen’s character arc: her struggle to contend with absences, with non-responses, with vacancies.
Perhaps because of the messenger’s lack of corporeality, the SMS becomes a motivator for Maureen’s self-actualization. The messenger (“predator”) and Maureen (“prey”) exchange most of their messages as Maureen moves through day-lit public spaces, which further sets the sequence apart from horror tropes (when the messenger asks Maureen why she’s afraid of horror movies, she replies, “A woman runs from a killer and hides”).
The texting sequence culminates with Maureen facing her fears to achieve arousal. As a personal shopper, she spends her days collecting pieces for her boss, Kyra. She often catches herself eyeing the pieces longingly: because Kyra forbids it, what she wants most is to try the clothes on herself. At the texter’s urging, Maureen slips into Kyra’s house and dresses herself in the woman’s clothing before masturbating on Kyra’s bed. When she does finally wear Kyra’s outfit, Maureen texts the unknown figure an explanation that establishes a form of complicity: “No desire if it’s not forbidden.”The texting sequence culminates with Maureen facing her fears to achieve arousal.Click To Tweet
Maureen’s arousal is possibly motivated by the fact that she now has a “spectator,” even if that spectator remains contained within her phone. Deviating from the majority of the texting sequence’s visual approach, this scene places us, the viewers, in a position to observe Maureen rather than see through her perspective. Assayas positions the camera outside the closet where Maureen is dressing, exiled to the bedroom and watching from a distance. Maureen completes the outfit offscreen, so that when she re-enters the frame wearing Kyra’s harness and dress, it plays as a reveal. Furthermore, the shot pans away and fades to black when Maureen masturbates, providing her with the privacy that would not necessarily be afforded in a lurid slasher. That her erotic transgression does not end in violence speaks to the ways in which Personal Shopper breaks the horror-specific bind between brutality and sexual “misdeed.”By drawing from horror conventions, Assayas and Stewart draw our attention to absence as a filmic deviceClick To Tweet
Maureen never verifies for certain whether or not Lewis has responded to her calls nor does the film unequivocally reveal the mysterious messenger’s identity. Instead, Personal Shopper closes fittingly on a close-up of Stewart’s pained and expressive face as she implores Lewis one last time. She pauses, and the screen fades not to black but to white, the absence of all colour. This is a crucial visual metaphor: the film itself leaves us with absence above all else. The final scene suggests that absence is grief’s most exacting and excruciating toll: an absence of explanation, reason, and voice — an absence of presence. By drawing from horror conventions, Assayas and Stewart draw our attention to absence as a filmic device, emphasizing the texter’s non-corporeality as a catalyst for both eroticism and fear. In this final scene, fear lingers in the silence and pain of grief.
Read the rest of our Personal Shopper Special Issue here.