A Personal Response to ‘Personal Shopper’

Through 'Personal Shopper,' Rebecca McCallum found solace.

Personal Shopper

I didn’t know it immediately, but Personal Shopper offered a meditation on my personal journey with anxiety. Its familiarity both scared and comforted me as the narrative crumbled with each watch, making way for the waves of emotion and mood that crested and fell as I willingly gave myself over to every frame.

As a long-time fan of the Projections Podcast, I first became aware of Olivier Assayas’ film when I listened to their episode on Shadow Selves and Artifice as part of a Fashion Films series Fashion Films Episode 8: Shadow Selves & Artifice — Projections Podcast. It wasn’t until many months later that I watched the film for the first time. But immediately an obsession formed, one that spawned multiple revisits within a short space of time. Through an ever-evolving relationship with horror, I know that when I respond to a visual text in this way, it means a deeper, unspoken attachment is at play. It’s a sign that something intrinsic within me has been awoken or touched. With a dry mouth and an allegro heartbeat, I fixed my gaze upon the screen as a personal response to Personal Shopper took shape. 

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works as an assistant to Kyra (Nora Walldstaten), a supermodel with a jet-set lifestyle and a job that requires continual travel to collect and return garments for her employer. Alongside this, having lost her brother Lewis to an ongoing health condition, she is also struggling to let go of his passing as she waits in hope of receiving a sign from him via the afterlife. Out of the blue, Maureen finds herself the recipient of a text message from an unknown source which escalates into a tense exchange over a prolonged period. Events take an increasingly dark turn and this leads her to question her mental state as she navigates her way through grief. 

Disassociation, the Forbidden, and Searching for an Identity

As a person who battles with anxiety on a daily basis, I am all too aware of how debilitating it can be. When the cloak of fear begins to wrap around you, there is an enveloping and claustrophobic sense of terror that is all-consuming. As the chatter grows louder and the physical symptoms manifest, a dissociation pervades. At the beginning of the film, Maureen returns to the unoccupied family home of her deceased brother Lewis.

The emptiness of the structure is a clear reflection of her own internal hollowness, a state that I have inhabited on and off for many years. Unfortunately, no matter how many times the cycle occurs, when anxiety takes occupation over mind and body, I am always compelled to push people away and resist all communication. While Maureen’s life is not devoid of those who care for her, she seems to exist in a liminal space for much of the film and, in particular, she has little to no contact with Kyra. Instead, they leave one another messages rendering their interactions impersonal and cold. 

It is Maureen’s job to tend to Kyra’s whims and hedonistic demands. As she darts about Europe any growth or progress in her own life is stunted. In taking care of others, Maureen neglects to look after herself, a fatal error I have made on more than one occasion. In an effort to mentally escape the restrictive and agonising nature of anxiety, the brain often takes to making uncharitable comparisons and launches into endless ‘what if’ exercises. Maureen can often be seen dressing in Kyra’s high-end clothes. This attempt to shed her own skin to try on other identities speaks to the appeal of the weightlessness of being someone else, if only for a few moments. 

The theme of the forbidden in the film is aligned with fear and desire. While Maureen fears Kyra, she simultaneously has a strong desire to assimilate her. In wearing her outfits— something she knows is forbidden—she is stepping outside of her normal behavior. However, assuming an alternative identity, albeit temporarily, symbolizes how, through being stuck and unable to move forward with her life, she no longer recognizes herself. In turn, by putting on the garments she is also rejecting her established identity; in short, she is coveting the possibility of being someone else, a notion that is all too alluring when you are in the throes of anxiety. 

Portals as Possibilities 

Through hard work and a good support system, I managed to create a safety net that I can deploy when I become overwhelmed. Part of this is acknowledging that there are alternative possibilities to the ones I create within my own headspace. The recurring motif of portals in Personal Shopper reflects both the expansive and limitless potential that life has to offer and (as long as we keep an open mind) a promise of hope being on the horizon for the future. In addition to going in and out of closets (representative of portals to endless versions of ourselves) and donning a dress covered in silver discs that shine like literal miniature gateways, we learn that Maureen’s brother Lewis built cabinets that, with their multiple drawers, are another nod to this theme.

Furthermore, the art that Maureen finds herself so transfixed by includes paintings containing circular shapes, acting as spheres capable of transportation. Technology too has a role to play. This does come with a warning as while some portals are nurturing and supportive, such as her Skype conversations with Gary (Ty Olwin), others are dark and destructive as seen in her text message exchange with Ingo (Lars Indinger). 

While the portals in Personal Shopper represent possibilities, Maureen is shown for much of the film in a limbo-like state. Suspended in grief, she often occupies what could be termed as ‘in-between places’ including airport lounges, escalators, tunnels, and train carriage passageways. Never settling, she is always journeying from one place to another, back and forth. In this sense, she’s in arrested development, much like the feeling of being stuck that can take hold when anxiety ensures you remain frozen in time.

The numerous doors that open and close (those in Lewis’s house, in Kyra’s apartment, and the lift/doors of the hotel) are physical representations of the inner world of our minds and the outer world that is waiting for us, offering alternate possibilities to either allow change into our lives or to shut it out. Near the start of the film, Maureen draws a doorway on an artist’s sketch pad. While this could be said to denote a willingness to contact Lewis in the spirit world, it may also be an early indication that she wishes to move forward with her life.

Tug of War

When my anxiety is at its worst, thoughts of alienation from both the world and myself are right at the forefront of my experience. There are moments when the pull of the past enters into a mental tug of war between the need to look ahead and not allow my health and happiness to be eclipsed by intrusive thoughts and exhaustion.

Over the course of Personal Shopper, we see Maureen transition from being held back by the past while waiting for a sign from Lewis, to eventually choosing life. In conversation with Lewis’s widow, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), a woman who has moved on and decided she doesn’t want to be consumed by grief, Maureen seems to be making a gentle shift towards letting go. It’s through exchanges with others that I often come to the realization that I cannot let my anxiety be the predeterminant voice in every decision I make.

I also empathize closely with Maureen’s admission to Lara that: ‘I should’ve listened a while ago’ as mirroring the crushing guilt I’ve felt when others have given me advice that I’ve not felt strong enough to act upon more often than I care to remember. Likewise, it’s only through accepting that anxiety is part of who I am, rather than something to fight against, that I have been able to find my own inner peace. In this respect, Maureen’s comment that: ‘an invisible presence is all around us’ feels profoundly resonant.  

A Mountain-Filled Sanctuary

I never expected Personal Shopper to strike such a personal chord with me. But I feel grateful to have found it (or perhaps, it found me?). It’s helped me to understand and consolidate both the dark moments in my life and acknowledge that within me will always lie an inner power to break through everything my anxiety tells me I cannot do, or that I am not deserving of. At the end of the film, when Maureen reaches the mountains of Oman, although she still has more self-exploration to do there is an uplifting note of optimism that she has taken the first step. I may not be in my ideal place in terms of confidence and how I perceive myself. But I know I have found a way to access my own mountain-filled sanctuary when I need it. And for now, that is enough. 

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