Olivier Assayas’ films Summer Hours and Personal Shopper are united by their portrayal of the recently bereaved confronting what the dead did, or did not, leave behind.
Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper begins in a place similar to where his 2008 film, Summer Hours, ends. Shopper finds Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal assistant and medium, wandering through her late twin brother Lewis’ spacious house. The house has been stripped bare, but Maureen wanders its halls trying to communicate with Lewis’ spirit. Maureen is a wayward soul, drifting through Paris hoping to obtain some sort of closure. Although Maureen makes contact with Lewis’ spirit at the end of the film, the movie doesn’t quite indicate if Maureen’s quest for closure is really over.
Hours climaxes with a young woman named Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) wandering through her late grandmother Hélène’s (Edith Scob) empty summer home, but her remembrance of a lost family member is far less harrowing. Sylvie is having a party to give the house a proper send-off before a new family moves in. This party stands in contrast to Hélène’s 75th birthday party, which opened Hours, where the entire family, all of Hélène’s children and grandchildren, also assembled at her summer home. Then, the house was filled with priceless French art, and death felt like a far-away possibility.
Personal Shopper is a chilly genre piece, unsettling and inscrutable: a ghost story about youthful ennui and personal displacement. Summer Hours is a wistful family drama in which emotions are laid bare. But the films are united by their portrayal of the recently bereaved confronting what the dead did, or did not, leave behind.
Hélène has spent her life protecting her uncle Paul Berthier’s immense, invaluable art collection. Her expansive estate feels more like a museum than a typical home: every room features a painting, a vase, or a piece of furniture from the collection. When her grandchildren aren’t roaming the grounds, they go inside and pause to look at the various works. Where Hélène sees family history captured for posterity, they only see a remnant “from another era.” The scene is a snapshot of the family’s future, one without a tangible connection to its past.
Maureen is nearly 50 years younger than Hélène, but mortality preoccupies both women, causing them to examine the connections that defined their pasts. Hélène is aging; Maureen shares the rare heart disease that caused Lewis’ recent death. Both women are trying to establish connections with family they’ve lost.
Hélène does this successfully with the Berthier collection, which has recently been archived and published in a coffee table book; now, it can be viewed by anyone, anywhere. “I’ve taken care of preserving Paul’s memories because they’re my memories,” Hélène tells her eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling). “After me, it’s another story… no need to become keepers of his tomb.” What she means is that when he and his siblings inherit her home and collection, they are free to do with it what they will. Frédéric insists that the house should stay in the family forever, but Hélène is stubbornly honest about her estate’s more likely future.
The connection Maureen searches for with Lewis, however, can’t be preserved for posterity. An encounter with a spirit can’t be hung on a wall, or handed off to future generations. Maureen’s present is uncertain, and she seeks something much more ephemeral than Helene’s collection. Maureen is characterized by her frustration with her job and her quest to find a connection to Lewis’ spirit — which makes her more of a kindred spirit with Helene’s three grown children.
Hélène’s eldest son Frédéric desperately wants to preserve the collection, which he sees as a preservation of his mother’s life — not to mention a keepsake he hopes his children will maintain for generations to come. As the only sibling with any concrete memories of his great-uncle, and the only one still living in Paris, he has more of an attachment to his mother’s monument to Berthier. “One day, they’ll be yours and your cousins’. You’ll pass them on to your kids,” he tells his own children when they look at the paintings that filled the house. Attachments will be gone if the house belongs to someone else and the art ends up in a museum. Yet his siblings, Adrienne and Jérémie, both live abroad and prefer to sell the estate, which is what Hélène thought might happen.
Frédéric just doesn’t understand, like his mother did, that personal attachments to objects don’t carry across generations like attachments to people do. When some of Hélène’s collection finally does end up in the Musée d’Orsay, Frédéric remarks to his wife that tourists don’t value the art as much as his family did. His wife, Lisa (Dominique Raymond), tells him that each piece is a part of a history that belongs to everyone. “Do those vases have a history?” he rejoins. “They mean something with flowers in a living room, with natural light. Otherwise, they’re disenchanted, inanimate.” In a museum, the art has no owner. It is only bound by the subjective response from the visitors who discover it. It makes Frédéric feel his mother’s work has been for naught: the future will feel less than whole without the collection belonging to them.
Like Frédéric with his mother’s estate, Maureen finds herself attached to Lewis’ house as her quest for communication weighs upon her. Assayas films the house to look like it’s already had any remnants of life ripped out of it: endless, dimly lit hallways, an echo that carries on for what feels like eternity. It’s as “disenchanted” and “inanimate” as Frédéric laments that Hélène’s collection has become in the museum. But Maureen is convinced Lewis’ ghost still inhabits his home, that the crude crosses scratched into the walls are evidence of something making its presence known. When she does make contact with a spiritual entity, it’s not Lewis she sees but a woman. Is it an actual ghost or possibly a reflection of Maureen herself, manifesting in the presence she desperately seeks out?
The experience leaves her shaken. The house is just a tomb, and it might not even be haunted by Lewis. She relents and lets Lewis’ wife, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), sell the house to some mutual friends. At least Hélène’s family got to see her for one last birthday at her house, to celebrate her life before it ended. Lewis’ death was much more abrupt, and it was a sort of death that may also befall Maureen due to their shared heart condition.
In Summer Hours, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is far less burdened by death or preserving the past than Maureen or Adrienne’s own siblings. As a contemporary artist herself, Adrienne lives by the credo that a piece’s beauty shouldn’t be determined by its age. “Modern or antique, beauty is beauty… you notice it,” she says to Hélène at the party. Hélène responds by noting that Adrienne prefers objects that aren’t “weighed down by the past.” Previously divorced, Adrienne picks up and drops attachments casually, and she doesn’t have time for family heirlooms or a house she’ll never use. “It means nothing to me… neither does France,” she says to Frédéric. Adrienne also points out that Hélène’s obituary features a quote describing the collection as her great mission in life. “It’s been her curse,” she corrects. Where members of her family and art museums saw joy in preservation, Adrienne saw only pain caused by the weight of one man’s memory. The sentimental bond became an iron chain over time, which snatched Hélène’s well-being as well as any heart condition.
Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the youngest, is adamant about selling the collection and house because these, in part, dissolved his parents’ marriage. “She suffocated him with her uncle,” Jérémie says of their father, as tremors of regret cross his face. Yet Jérémie’s job in China may be defining his life just as heavily as the art collection defined his mother’s. His wife and children have left France behind, adapting to a language and culture leagues removed from their own. He hadn’t planned the job to be permanent, but the contract extension Jérémie says he was offered and the familial obligations keep him from casting it aside. If Jérémie can make a clean break from the collection at least, for reasons practical and personal, there’s no reason to hesitate.
While Jérémie’s work life isn’t shown on-screen, any displacement he feels from not having a familial connection is implicit. Personal Shopper makes that feeling explicit. Maureen also has a job that is consuming her existence. She buys clothes for a pernicious model named Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Never mind that she’s an American millennial living in Paris, it’s all-consuming work that provides little satisfaction. She can’t even try on the clothes she spends all day procuring for Kyra. But after being urged on by the anonymous presence that has been sending her text messages, Maureen slips into one of her boss’ black gowns. The film then cuts to Maureen masturbating in Kyra’s bed, still wearing the dress. The need for any sort of release, a bond with anything within her grasp that can possibly assuage her grief, spills over. But in the end, all it does is amplify her isolation.
At the farewell party that closes Summer Hours, Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier follow Sylvie through the near-empty house, no longer a museum but a well-preserved cavern whose slate has been wiped clean. Sylvie shares a memory of her grandmother with her boyfriend. “We used to pick cherries… she’d tell me stories,” Sylvie says. “She used to do the same thing with her uncle… there’s a painting of her as a child picking cherries.” But then she gets emotional when she turns to look at the house. “My grandmother is dead. The house has been sold,” she says. Her grief is tied to memory. Sylvie never met her great-great-uncle, so how is she supposed to feel the loss of his belongings?
Personal Shopper also ends with an emotional breakthrough, of sorts. Maureen is in the Middle East with her boyfriend. At the house they’re staying at, she sees a glass floating in midair, then drop and shatter. Maureen asks if the presence is Lewis: it responds in the affirmative. Maureen asks if Lewis is at peace: it says “yes” again. Maureen asks once again if the presence is really Lewis, only to then ask: “Lewis is it you…or is it just me?” The film ends with Maureen, waiting for an answer to this question. Both Summer Hours and Personal Shopper end on characters making a realization about those they have lost: the houses, the art, the physical presence won’t last forever. One can’t expect objects or spirits to take the place of the void left by death in a family. The loss is the loss.
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