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How Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas Bring the Dead Back to Life in ‘Personal Shopper’

The ghost movie inspires personal reflection on the experience of losing a loved one, and it may be the ideal vessel for exploring the grieving process.

“Personal Shopper”

Cinema is about resurrection. Cinema is about dealing with your own ghosts and bringing them to life. Cinema can explore your subconscious and your memories, but mostly it allows what is lost to come back.” — Olivier Assayas

I promised myself that I wouldn’t tell Kristen Stewart about my dad.

I repeated that instruction like a prayer as I prepared for our interview. I didn’t want to make this about me. One of the first hurdles you have to clear as a film journalist is accepting the fact that you’re always the least-interesting person in the room. As I sat across from Stewart and writer-director Olivier Assayas in an empty Lincoln Center atrium on a rainy October afternoon, it wasn’t even close.

But when you’re grieving, the dead always seem relevant. And when you’re talking about Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” where Stewart’s character moonlights as a modern-day medium desperately trying to establish contact with her late twin brother, the dead always are.

Since my dad died, I’ve been looking for him everywhere. In every sign, behind every coincidence, on every screen. When he was alive, I only really saw him on the occasional Sunday. Now I find myself fighting the urge to mention him during interviews, or to invoke his memory in my writing. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in March 2015, he died right before Christmas that year, and I filed the one and only piece I’ve written about him during the June in between, when the last petals of hope were just falling off the flower. It was becoming clear my dad had suffered severe, permanent cognitive impairment during the surgery to remove his tumor, and I wrote out of the growing realization that I would never be able to tell him how I felt, or rather that he would never be able to hear me if I did.

It was a cathartic experience, but I couldn’t shake the sense there was something tawdry and self-aggrandizing about the display. I felt like one of those sociopaths who goes up to the microphone during a post-screening audience Q&A, and — ignoring the chorus of knowing groans — begins to regale the cast and crew with an uncomfortably personal story in an explicitly public space. Those people are monsters. Sandwiched between Stewart and Assayas, I was fighting the urge to rejoin their ranks, fighting a war of attrition between my ethos as a journalist and my impulse as a narcissist.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t tell Kristen Stewart about my dad.

But I never expected she would tell me so much about him.

***

“Oh my God. Fuck!”

I had just asked Kristen Stewart if she finds texting to be stressful — it would appear that she does. “You start texting with someone and you’re just like, ‘Okay, that was the perfect thing to say,’ and then you look at it after and you read all of your texts together as a whole, as a visual thing, and it’s just…” She trailed off and turned up her palms.

Olivier Assayas, spilling over the bench beside me, sat up and seized on the momentary silence: “Text messaging is the one modern form of communication. It’s unique. It’s special. It’s something new.” The same could be said of “Personal Shopper,” which reinvents the ghost story by approaching it with radical directness and a singularly modern sense of self. The movie is among the most affecting depictions of the grieving process I’ve ever seen. And somehow, despite the fact that it includes a scene in which a phantom projectile scream-vomits hot white ectoplasm into the air above Stewart’s face, it’s also one of the most realistic.

READ MORE: Inside The Making Of “A Ghost Story”: How David Lowery Made The Best Film Of Sundance 2017

Bracingly direct one moment and stubbornly elliptical the next, “Personal Shopper” isn’t just a story about a young woman trying to connect with her brother across the beyond, it’s also a story about how technology shapes the way people remember the dead and process their absence. Spiritualists are magnetized to spectacle, so it’s only natural that Maureen is constantly staring at her iPhone, using it to google the paintings of Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint or watch an amusing clip from a (fake) old TV drama in which Victor Hugo conducts a hokey séance. These digital communions lend Assayas’ laconic thriller the feeling of a Russian nesting doll, each layer hiding a new dead body.

In the film’s already notorious centerpiece, Stewart’s character is peppered with aggressive, sexually charged SMS messages from an unknown number as she rides the Eurostar train from Paris to London and back again. Stretching between 20 minutes, two countries, and possibly into the afterlife, the scene assumes a sudden new shiver when Maureen begins to wonder if she’s texting with her brother’s ghost, or perhaps a more malevolent spirit.

That the gripping sequence caused such a stir following the film’s Cannes premiere is ridiculous for at least two reasons: For one thing, it may be the 21st Century’s signature episode of Hitchcockian suspense. For another, it’s also the stuff of vintage Assayas, crystallizing what the cinema’s reigning modernist has done so well for the last 30 years.

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