How do you describe a film like Personal Shopper? Several have chosen ‘Hitchcockian thriller’ as the go-to comparison, but to me it seems neither of those things. Anyone expecting the ostentatious brand of Hitchcock schlock is certainly going to be bitterly disappointed. In fact, anyone expecting anything is bound to be let down in one way or another.
Throughout it, an outtake song by The Birthday Party called Pleasure Avalanche kept rumbling through my head, its gruff chanting churning away: ‘here it comes, here it comes, here it comes’. But in Olivier Assayas’ film, you slowly realise that the great payoff you’re looking for is never going to arrive – an anti-Hitchcock device if ever there were one.
That song also contains the line ‘dead desire equals dead pleasure’, which could easily serve as Personal Shopper‘s tagline. Maureen, its central character, is a woman whose life has been stripped of any fundamental purpose. Her twin brother has succumbed to a heart condition which she has also inherited, and her job consists of buying fashion accessories for a wealthy woman with the reputation of being a monster.
Maureen goes through her life in a kind of apathetic fog, and, in some ways, the arc of the film traces an attempt to free her from it. But the mystifying means through which this occurs – through various videos she watches on her phone, a series of text messages from an ostensibly unknown sender, or her encounters with expensive clothes – ensure that any struggle here is entirely internalised.
Indeed, with its dialogue-free mix of intertitles and reactions, the texting sequences effectively send the film into silent movie territory. Which is appropriate, given that Maureen – who is also trying to contact her brother for proof of an afterlife – has clearly landed here from a previous century. She spends her time studying fellow mediums like painter Hilma af Klint and Victor Hugo, and her own story, with its intertwining themes of manipulation and the supernatural, is firmly rooted in works like August Strindberg’s 1908 play The Ghost Sonata.
After leaving the cinema, I found myself trying to wash my hands at a tap which wasn’t functioning. Someone else who had just come out of the film said: ‘it must be a poltergeist’ – and then the tap came on. A good ghost story can scare you into thinking that ghosts really might exist. But Personal Shopper makes you acutely aware of what other unlikely things, under the right circumstances, you might also find yourself believing. A far more terrifying prospect.