[The following contains spoilers for Personal Shopper.]
I had more difficulty writing about Personal Shopper than almost anything else I’ve written about, because of what’s been happening in my life of late. Just last month, a mere week before I saw the movie, my uncle passed away after a long struggle with his health. There’s a hole in my life he left that I don’t think I’ll ever fill; he was a kind and giving man to everyone, a fantastic brother to my mom and my other uncles and was never anything but supportive of me. Sometimes it’s still hard to grasp that he’s gone. I feel like he’s still with me even now. Personal Shopper was exactly the movie I needed to see at that moment, because its statements on grief, technology, and how the two are intertwined profoundly moved me and helped me achieve some kind of closure.
The film centers on Maureen (played masterfully by Kristen Stewart), an American woman living in Paris for a multitude of reasons. Most prominently, her twin brother, Lewis, died there three months ago of a heart condition she shares with him, and the two made a pact that whoever died first would send the other a sign. She returns over and over to the house he lived in with his French girlfriend, trying to find some trace of his spirit. While she searches for signs, she’s also working as a personal shopper for a Kyra, famous model (a job she hates), sleeping in homes she doesn’t own. Despite having a few fairly significant professional connections, she is adrift and alone. The most she really talks to someone about what she’s feeling are to a friend of hers via Skype and to a mysterious person texting her from an unknown number that may or may not be a ghost.
Frequently throughout the film, Stewart is the only actor onscreen, emphasizing Maureen’s solitude, and she holds your attention for every single second. Her eyes are constantly searching, her body language tense and twitchy without coming across as mannered. It’s a portrayal of grief that isn’t often seen in film, choosing to focus on the tension and unease that comes with the seismic shift in daily life caused by the death of a loved one. There’s not a lot of crying or despondence in Personal Shopper, but there is a lot of barely suppressed anger and frustration, mostly from Maureen directed at her inability to find meaning in her life and, by extension, the tragedy of Lewis’ death. Whenever she mentions the idea of Lewis sending her a sign, Stewart refuses to soften Maureen’s prickly exterior for these scenes; we see her reaching for something that may either be just beyond her grasp or, more frighteningly, not there at all. She sounds exhausted in ways it’s difficult to express in words.
In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Maureen tries on some of the clothes she bought for Kyra at the behest of her mysterious texter, who asks her if she’d ever like to be someone else. She answers ambiguously, another front, but after quickly Googles images of Kyra to see which of the clothes she bought have been worn in public recently, and chooses them from the closet. There’s precious little dialogue here, even between Maureen and the texter, but there doesn’t need to be; Stewart tells a story entirely through physical action. Her tentative, delicate way of handling the clothes, her awkward posture while wearing them (as if they’re a second skin that doesn’t fit quite right), the way she struggles to lie down comfortably in the dress; it all shows without telling how Maureen’s struggle to find solace through trying on someone else’s life isn’t an effective coping mechanism for grief. No matter how much she tries to force herself into this role, it simply doesn’t work like she wants it to. Once again, it’s a different kind of grief than what we often see portrayed in film. Maureen doesn’t just grieve for her brother, but for herself, for what she feels she could have done or could be doing to be free of guilt.
The ending is particularly important in this regard. It’s eventually revealed that the person sending Maureen the anonymous texts is very much alive, and she has a conversation with Lewis’ ex-girlfriend’s new paramour about the afterlife, where she seems to agree with his assertions that there’s probably no way Lewis is talking to her from beyond the grave. Behind her, we see a specter shatter a glass, which she sweeps up, none the wiser as to how it broke. Later, upon traveling to Oman to visit her friend, she sees another glass break in the same manner. She asks the spirit if it is Lewis, to which it seems to answer yes. Her further questions (“Are you at peace?” “Do you mean harm?”) receive ambiguous answers, but her final question gets a fairly definite, and chilling answer:
Maureen: Lewis, are you there?
Maureen: Or is it just me?
A single knocking noise, to indicate “yes.” Maureen closes her eyes in acceptance.
Fade to white. Credits.
Some might see this ending as pessimistic or nihilistic, a simple “the ghosts were in her head all along” twist that turns what we’ve previously seen into the incredibly depressing adventures of a tormented woman driven wild by her psyche, but I take a different reading. I believe she did indeed make contact with Lewis, but his message to her was deliberately not one of comfort, but one to move forward and shape her life into what she wants it to be rather than she feels it should be. Maureen talks a lot in the film about what she dislikes, or what she isn’t, or her connections with other people, especially Lewis, but she never outright states what she does want or need out of life. Her entire life is negative space, as emphasized by the camerawork: many shots of Stewart surrounded by vague clutter, or her face lit by a phone screen amongst a litany of anonymous subway passengers, or the camera pulling away as she attempts to pleasure herself in the “trying on Kyra’s dress” scene. When my uncle died, I couldn’t focus on anything but the negative space in my life or the what-ifs, especially while writing this piece. What if it comes off as disrespectful to his memory? What if there was more I could have done for him while he was alive? Was there something I could have said to make it better at the end? Am I going about this all wrong? Maureen may be alone, but Lewis telling her that she is is what she needs to hear to move on: I am alone. It’s affirmative. It’s one thing in her life that is not a negative.
I don’t know if there’s an afterlife or not. Maybe this really is all there is, maybe there’s more. Personal Shopper doesn’t portend to offer any kind of definitive statement on this, and I think it’s much stronger for it. What it seems to say, to me, is this: no matter what you believe, believe something. Strive for something. Do not kill yourself through sublimating your emotions in a job you hate, or superficialities. You’re bigger than that. Maybe there’s nothing to “learn” from death, or the grieving process, but there’s something to be gained by examining what you feel and how you express it. And maybe what you find out about yourself from that isn’t good or happy or rewarding, and maybe you won’t feel better about it for years to come. But I think the loved ones we lose know that, somehow. They know, just as we do, somewhere deep down, that finding yourself when you feel like nothing is a long road full of hurt. But you can’t get to the end of the road if you don’t take a step.
If you’re there, John, I love you. We all do. And I’m going to live how you would have wanted me to.
I’ll be here.