In Personal Shopper, the boundary between Maureen and others is both because of technology and merely exacerbated by it. This is an excerpt from our book, Beyond Empowertainment, which you can purchase here. Read more excerpts here.
Was Maureen depressed because she lived in her phone, or did she live in her phone because she was depressed? In Personal Shopper, the intimate way in which we interact with technology is both a metaphor for depression (and anxiety) and an expression of it. As Kristen Stewart, who plays the titular personal shopper Maureen, put it on Charlie Rose, her co-star in the film was her phone. Most of the time, Maureen is alone, though she’s constantly communicating with someone through her phone. But she’s detached in every sense of the word: from her own life and ambitions, from other people, and from her reality.
When the film begins, Maureen is still grieving over the recent death of her twin brother, Lewis, who died of a heart attack a few months back. Because they are both mediums, they made a pact that whoever died first would make contact — from the afterlife. She has stayed in Paris, where he had lived, waiting. She has the same heart condition that killed her When the film begins, Maureen is still grieving over the recent death of her twin brother, Lewis, who died of a heart attack a few months back. Because they are both mediums, they made a pact that whoever died first would make contact — from the afterlife. She has stayed in Paris, where he had lived, waiting. She has the same heart condition that killed her brother so she’s under doctor’s orders to avoid strong emotions. But she takes this advice to the extreme, avoiding emotions altogether, except for the crippling anxiety that keeps catching up with her.
Maureen lives in a kind of suspended reality, unable to change anything in her life for fear that it would mean admitting her brother is really gone. Instead of finding a reason to stay in Paris more permanently or enjoying her time there, she keeps the job she hates and maintains a solitary existence. She spends her days drifting around town on her Vespa from one couture boutique to the next. Her hours are devoted to finding garments to adorn someone else, unable to ever take pleasure in donning them herself (It’s forbidden.) Her garret is more of a hideout than a home: small, cramped, full of books, not the sort of place you’d want to live in forever. Despite her insistence that she must stay in Paris, she’s hardly present in her life there. She barely looks up at the sights, which are mostly blurred in the frame, even when passing Notre Dame. She might as well be anywhere.
Accepting any kind of change would not only require breaking out of her depression but also accepting that her brother’s death is real. Yet change is happening all around her. The film is set in the autumn, and the multicoloured leaves are scattered across the ground everywhere. Her brother’s girlfriend, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), is trying to sell his house, but the new owners won’t take possession until Maureen assures them her brother’s spirit isn’t still there. When an acquaintance (Lars Eidinger) offers her his contacts at Vogue, she finds excuses to turn him down, citing the need for creative freedom. But as he points out, “You already have a stupid job. What’s the difference? The pay is better.”
Being depressed means that you can be with people and yet feel alone. The few times Maureen actually does talk to other people, she’s disconnected from them. Assayas rarely uses two-shots; instead, he alternates between a closeup of Maureen’s conversant and a wider shot of Maureen, alone in the vast expanse of an otherwise empty frame. She never makes eye contact, whether it’s with her doctor or her faraway boyfriend on Skype, whose calls feel like an intrusion, a persistent sound interrupting her focus on something else. There’s often a physical boundary between Maureen and others: the glass window through which she glimpses Lara in a cafe, the glass divider on which strands of necklaces hang in a boutique.
In Personal Shopper, the boundary between Maureen and others is both because of technology and merely exacerbated by it. Her absent boyfriend has been reduced to a pixelated head in a screen. Even her boss, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), whose apartment she is constantly stopping in on, is too distracted by her own phone calls to answer Maureen’s queries when they’re in the same room. Instead, they leave each other handwritten notes or talk on the phone. Does communication technology allow Maureen to stay comfortably in her depression? Or is she unable to get out of it because face-to-face contact is almost a thing of the past?
The most intense interactions Maureen has are with the unknown number she spends much of the film texting. In the film’s central set piece, she travels from Paris to London and back again, but spends almost all of the journey entirely absorbed in her iPhone’s screen. We get glimpses of her surroundings — the train, the black cab, the window in her peripheral vision — and her place in them, but most of our focus and hers is on her screen. Though the identity of the texter is unknown, because it’s incorporeal and absent, Maureen can pretend that she’s talking to whomever she wants to be talking to. It seems like the unknown texter might be her brother, and at times, all that matters is that she needs it to be her brother.
Marion Monnier edited both Personal Shopper and Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Løve) in 2016, and both films featured clipped scenes that would end a beat too early. In Things to Come, this created a sense of forward motion and buoyancy: this pain, too, shall pass, and life goes on. In Personal Shopper, it has the opposite effect. It constantly seems like Maureen is losing time, and we’re losing it with her. Days fade into each other. She falls asleep without noticing, and bang, hours have passed. In the film’s opening, she’s following what she thinks is a spirit around Lewis’ abandoned house. When we hit what seems like the climax of this sequence, it ends abruptly, and we see her being awoken the next day. Assayas shows her falling asleep so often, frequently coinciding with her seeming interactions with the spirit world, that it’s never quite clear what’s real and what’s imagined.
That loss of time is equally a symptom of depression and of being on the internet. The overwhelming fatigue that tends to accompany depression means you can fall asleep at unpredictable hours for an unpredictable amount of time. Time begins to blur, and you can spend months in a depressive episode without noticing. Of course, the same is true of online life. You’re on Skype for three hours without realizing it’s time for another meal. You get lost in a deep dive on Wikipedia, and before you know it, it’s the next day.
When Maureen travels between Paris and London, the editing matches her close focus on her phone. Steps get elided so that the only ones that matter are ones when her phone buzzes with a new message notification. We see her parking her Vespa, getting her ticket, waiting to board the train, on the train, in the cab, in the store, and back again. Yet we’re aware that this multi-hour trip has been condensed to a few intense interactions on Maureen’s phone. Even though the landmarks and train stations reveal that she’s travelled between countries, we feel stuck in one place with her: in the phone.
The cuts between scenes are subtly jarring because of the changes in the soundscape. Each setting has a different character of white noise — a low hum here, a screech there — so when Monnier cuts from one location to the next, the change in background noise is abrupt. Yet these changes are never enough to wake Maureen from her complacency. Throughout most of the film, the clearest sounds are those emanating from Maureen’s phone: the vibrations of a notification and the click of a tap on the screen.
That is, at least, until Maureen is finally ready to leave Paris: “And then I guess, I’ll live my life and let it go.” When Maureen is at Lara’s house one morning, talking to Lara’s boyfriend, Erwin (Anders Danielsen Lie), Assayas and Monnier let the scene run surprisingly long. Well past when Erwin has left the conversation and the frame, the camera lingers on Maureen in contemplation while a ghost is glimpsed through the window behind her. It’s the clearest sign we get that Lewis is actually there and communicating with Maureen. He drops a glass, and the crash startles Maureen. She brushes it off as the probable result of Erwin’s carelessness. Yet the loud noise is what brings her back into the land of the living.
In the film’s final sequence, Maureen heads to the Sultanate of Oman to visit her boyfriend. When she arrives at his villa in the day, it starts out seeming like yet another dark room where she’s alone. But this is different. There are slits in the walls to let light in. And the sound of the outside world isn’t muted or blurred: we can, for the first time, make out individual voices, of children playing and speaking. Her phone is nowhere to be seen. When Maureen is ready to look for life again, it finds her, seeping into the frame without her even noticing it.
Want to read the rest of the book? Order a copy of our new ebook on feminist horror beyond empowertainment here.
Want to read the rest of the book?
This is an excerpt from the book Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and the Struggle for Female Agency.
The book contains 20+ chapters on films such as Thelma, Raw, and Perfect Blue.