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Ghosts of grief in modern, secular Paris

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Tim Kroenert |  18 April 2017

 

Personal Shopper (MA). Director: Olivier Assayas. Starring: Kristen Stewart. 105 minutes

Maureen (Stewart) is a medium. At least, she might be — she's not sure. Cynical about the prospect of any kind of afterlife, she spends the early part of Personal Shopper holed up in an old Parisian mansion, trying to commune with the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother. Her experiences there, spooky as they may be, don't proffer any conclusive answers for her or the audience.

Maureen is currently employed by a difficult and demanding fashion model as a personal shopper; literally, she spends her paid working days buying clothes, shoes and jewellery for someone else. The juxtaposition of the pure materialistic focus of this work, and her doubt-riven incursions into the spiritual realm, is intriguing, even if it is almost too on-point not to be jarring.

Many of Maureen's interactions are mediated by technology. She has a boyfriend, but he is never physically present, appearing to her via Skype. Often we watch on as she frowns over her phone, reading and responding to text messages. Or the camera peers over her shoulder as she watches a video while travelling from Paris to London by train, disconnected from the people and places around her.

Kristen Stewart in Personal ShopperEven her most sustained engagement with the spiritual realm is so mediated. Maureen begins receiving text messages from a mysterious stranger, whom she suspects is a ghost.Assayas' direction and Marion Monnier's astute editing integrate these modern technologies into the fabric of the film, to both build suspense and to underscore Maureen's sense of alienation.

 

"It is a profound consideration of the processing of grief in a secular, consumerist society."

 

Stewart is captivating in the role. The erstwhile star of the Twilight franchise was once the subject of a meme lampooning an alleged lack of emotional range. But her expressiveness is in fact copious in its small details. Her deceptively opaque tone and mannerisms are perfectly suited to a character who at times appears passive but is endlessly grappling with complex ideas and emotions.

Personal Shopper was booed at Cannes (booing is a famous pastime at France's premiere film festival). It's easy to see why it was divisive. Its plot is a patchwork of riddles, many of which are left frustratingly unanswered. Still, it is at worst a suitably eerie contemporary ghost story, and at best a fresh and profound consideration of the processing of grief in a secular, consumerist society.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.

 



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" the prospect of any kind of afterlife". In Genesis, God is shown as taking steps to ensure that 'man' does NOT live forever. Yet is seems to have been an innate desire throughout the ages. Aristotle suggested there were intimations of it in the fact that we have a capacity for harbouring truths that are necessary, universal and eternal, such as mathematical axioms. Young humans seem to face a future of unlimited growth and development, with no initial concept of it ending. I remember a 10 year old boy, faced with the death of an aunt, commenting, "When I was young, I thought I would live forever". Religions generally use such an incentive to promote their authority over their followers. Perhaps an indication of one aspect is in the old song about John Brown's soul which 'goes marching on'. Just as the flap of a distant butterfly's wing might cause an avalanche far away, so our spirit can live on in the mind and hearts of those who love us, spreading influence like the ripple in still water spreads out endlessly. The old concept seems to have negative effect with the advent of suicide bombers killing others for 'paradise'.

Robert Liddy 20 April 2017

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