On text bubbles, psychic connections, and the enigmatic spiritual transmissions of communication
Personal Shopper IFC Films
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten and Anders Danielsen Lie
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
Communication can be such a deceptively indirect thing. Not only that but unreliable, too. Elusive. Signals go in and out. Connections get severed, re-established, and severed again. Time, technology and location alternately facilitate and obstruct. Glitches and delays interfere along the way. We misinterpret, we misunderstand. We have face-to-face conversations in which we're talking about completely different, even oppositional, things. We revisit or remember old messages, find new meanings in them. We rediscover old correspondences, separated from their original intent or context. We save them - emails, videos, voicemails - to watch or listen all over again, and again.
What physical distance doesn't (or can't) manipulate or re-frame, a temporal schism surely can and will. We have "real time" conversations on FaceTime or Skype, but there's always a lag, an asynchronous transmission, a running exchange of stops and starts. Our voices over the phone suffer a similar, if less detectable, delay. Text messages pop up out of order from time to time.
What time doesn't (or can't) scramble, technology surely can and will. Calls cut out, and reconnect just long enough to say "Sorry, I lost you." The odd text gets lost in the ether, sent but never received. We lose touch but the connections linger. We lose on a more permanent basis, and the connections linger still. This may, I admit, all sound frivolously minute - an overthought way to nitpick the obvious. But in fact these very nuances - the intangible grey areas of communication, of contact (emotional, physical, logistical, technological, psychological, sexual) - are the ostensible subject of Olivier Assayas' exquisite Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart in a great role that revolves around, and takes full advantage of, her singular presence.
Taking her character, Maureen, at her word, she can communicate in ways beyond what any of us can understand. She is a medium - able to communicate with the "other side," though what exactly that means is a mystery even to her. She's not particularly religious, she's dubious on the possibility of an afterlife, she doesn't have answers. But she does know what she is, and what she can sense and feel and contact. And yet even she doesn't claim to truly comprehend connection - where it comes from, what rules govern it. Even she is a casualty of its ambiguity, its indirectness.
I can say with no degree of facetiousness that the second-most significant presence in the film is none other than the iMessage typing indicator bubble, yours and my constant companion, our source of perpetual mid-conversation anxiety. And Maureen's source of confusion, fascination, ambiguous fear, forbidden thrill, even erotic charge. The identity on the other end of that bubble is unknown, but he/she/it makes for one half of a thrillingly cryptic 20-minute sequence that revolves around a single ongoing text conversation. Maureen moves from place to place, in and out of public transit, officially occupied with other matters but constantly preoccupied with whomever she's speaking to - feeling the situation out, deciding what to reveal about herself, questioning the intentions and the identity of the unknown individual on the other end.
The person she's been trying to get in touch with is her twin brother Lewis, with whom she shared the same extrasensory abilities as well as a rare genetic heart condition. He died and left behind only the mutual promise to make spiritual contact with the surviving twin when the time comes. The more she tries to reach him, the more signs and signals she encounters or makes contact with, the more she begins to believe she's talking to someone else entirely. It may or may not be Lewis - more likely the latter. It may or may not be sinister. It may or may not be real. Those answers may not ultimately matter anyway; what matters is the psycho-spiritual process that plays out on screen, a remarkable evocation of the distance between us and the things that speak to us, what we can tune into and what we can't, what signals we recognize and which ones we can't.
It's as much a ghost story as it is a self-interrogating story of memory, consciousness, interpretation, projection. In reaching outward to an intangible spectral space - in attempting to frame the mysteries of her encounters, direct or otherwise, as spiritual investigation - she ends up doing an introspective number on herself. The more she gets wrapped up in it, the more she reveals about herself - certainly more than anything or anyone else. The more specific truths she's supposedly after remain evasive. Personal Shopper seems like what would happen if Antonioni adapted a Murakami novel.
The film is built on transmissions that reach across time and space, in the process underscoring their very subjectivity, their flexibility - simultaneously their personal relevance and their inconclusiveness. Text conversations between a young woman and an unknown stranger. Skype conversations between one country and another - Maureen and her boyfriend, who keeps trying to convince her to leave France and come join him. A soul communicating from one "side" to another through lights and sounds and markings, possible signs or hints of signs. A soul that materializes seemingly from thin air, like a random and powerful electrical current, in a dark, unoccupied house. A movie from decades ago, providing direct insight to a 21st Century individual, transmitted through a modern device as if this was its intention all along. Running commentary of an abstract artist reputedly ahead of her time, as if the art was meant to communicate with a future that hadn't arrived yet - perhaps, to communicate directly with Maureen herself, at this moment in time. The woman she works for - a high-maintenance socialite - makes a habit of using intermediaries. She does business through her lawyer, who relays what he's told over the phone to someone else some unknown place across the globe. Maureen does her shopping for her - even tries on the clothes she's buying for her, at times literally stepping into her shoes - but in person can't seem to get her undivided attention. No one is speaking directly to anyone, and yet their messages - intended or not, open to interpretation or not - are coming through loud and clear.
I can't help but keep coming back to that text bubble. That indifferent yet strangely anxious ellipses that tells us: There is someone at this very moment trying to communicate directly with you. But you can't see what they're saying. Yet. But there's always a secrecy, isn't there. Bubble or no bubble, device or no device. Where expression and intent end and interpretation begins is an open question. Where psychology ends and spirituality begins, another one. There have been so many films, this century in particular, explicitly about modern communication - often taking an overtly deliberate, didactic approach that draws attention to the structures of language and technology without saying a whole lot about it. Personal Shopper gently embraces the secrets and the randomness of it - suggesting a psychological thriller without actually becoming one, evoking a ghost story without ever overselling it.
Everything Assayas and Stewart have at their disposal is a means to a wonderfully uncertain end. Their abstrusely playful conflations of time, geography and physical presence - evoked most memorably in a set of matching sequences late in the film - create something of a dazzling quantum paradox. Something in that spirit, anyway. Communication itself is an unsolvable mystery, a personal attitude, entirely at the mercy of interpretations, guesses, whims.