‘Personal Shopper’ Exposes the Ghost in the Smartphone

The past decade of movie-going has witnessed a startling evolution in the passive-aggressive pre-show public service announcement. Those once-gentle reminders to turn off electronic devices during the movie have taken on an almost dictatorial urgency, stentorian voices now commanding the smartphone-armed audience, “DON’T. RUIN. THE MOVIE.” Now, however, even the movies themselves are starting to whittle away at their viewers’ ability to set aside technological distraction.

Personal Shopper, the strange new thriller from French director Olivier Assayas, is a cautionary case in point for how technology’s encroaching hold on our attention has transformed the way we entertain ourselves—for the worse. The film stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen, an American in Paris working as, yes, a personal shopper for a jet-setting celebrity. Maureen is grieving over the loss of her twin brother Lewis to a fatal heart abnormality, but she can also communicate with the dead. (Just go with it.)

Being a standard-order Distressed Millennial, Maureen is followed by screens wherever she goes. The movie makes a point of teasing out all the implications of their omnipresence. Maureen Skypes her boyfriend in Oman and fears that she’s missing out on a better, more exciting life when he shows her the opulent sultanate where he’s living. She frequents the storied sidewalk cafés of Paris not to people-watch, but to reap the benefits of free Wi-Fi to watch documentaries about mediums on YouTube. She pursues an unknown caller in a movie-length game of text-message cat-and-mouse that holds her in a heightened and constant state of anxiety as she runs about town picking up gorgeous fashion accessories for her boss.

Maureen is a new kind of flaneûse: directionless and always on the move on the streets of Paris, but too jaded as a result of always being plugged in to ever calm down or even have any gratitude for the beauty that surrounds her in the City of Light. She only ever seems to catch a break when she visits the exurban home of her brother’s former girlfriend. It’s a quiet, shady cottage on the outskirts of the city’s hustle and bustle, where new age technology fades into the background (the girlfriend is some kind of woodworker, so the home is a hygge hotspot, brimming with craft tables and homemade knickknacks). It’s significant, though, that this haven is tied up with the dead: Lewis is gone, his girlfriend is moving on, and Maureen has fewer reasons by the day to visit this symbolic domain of a simpler, more analog, more focused past.

The movie’s commentary on technology’s attention-scrambling tyranny extends to its audience, too. The weirdness of Personal Shopper stems not only from the fact that Maureen can, and does, talk to the dead (there’s an ectoplasm-vomiting ghost and a lot of levitating glassware involved), but also from the absence of so many of the traditional elements of captivating moviemaking. Beautiful, big-screen canvases showcasing the grandeur of Paris? Not in this movie. Drama driven by conflict between compelling characters? You’ll have to settle for K-Stew furiously texting increasingly creepy iMessages. Seamless editing that builds tension from scene to scene? Nope—just lots of fade-to-black cuts, a hallmark of Assayas’s style but one whose frequency in this film is especially unflattering given the genres he’s playing around with.

Almost all the suspense comes instead from that unknown caller who keeps badgering Maureen with increasingly more predatory texts. Consequently, the mere presence of the phone onscreen at any given moment distracts the viewer from whatever else is happening in the frame—even, and especially, if there’s a Technicolor sunset illuminating the Paris skyline in the background. Olivier Assayas knows just how great the temptation is for modern moviegoers to put their own phones out of sight and out of mind at the theater, so he constructs the film such that its most compelling scenes keep us too fixated on somebody else’s phone to think about our own.

But there’s the kicker: whatever bold new filmmaking Assayas is going for here, the film tries so hard to do something innovative that it ultimately fails to be a captivating experience as a whole. While it may still move viewers who can relate to the depiction of Maureen’s grief over a recently-deceased loved one, for most of us, Personal Shopper is only a testimony to better thrillers, ones that rely on the tried-and-true cuts, casts, and music cues—such as Jordan Peele’s decidedly less-highbrow but superior Get Out—to hold their audience’s attention for their entire duration. One or two interesting ideas do not an engrossing movie make, even if they’re as timely and important as Personal Shopper’s comments on the need to stop obsessing over our screens so we can get back to the hard, but beautiful, work of living.

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