Ghosts in the Machines

I've been thinking about Personal Shopper a lot since I saw it last month. The film, the latest from talented French director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, The Clouds of Sils Maria), is haunting in multiple senses. It's haunting not primarily because it is a ghost story (literally... the opening scene is a haunted house sequence more chilling than anything in the Paranormal Activity films). Rather, it's haunting because it pinpoints deeply familiar and unsettling things about how we exist in the modern world: connected but detached, digitally but not bodily present, experiencing the world at various mediated removes... ghosts to each other and to ourselves.

Kristen Stewart's vocations in the film are telling. As "Maureen," she's the personal shopper of the film's title, tasked with purchasing high-end clothes and jewelry for her employer, a wealthy fashion icon in Paris named Kyra. But in her spare time Maureen is also a spiritual medium, seeking to communicate with ghosts, first and foremost her recently deceased twin brother.

But as a personal shopper Maureen is also a medium. She is the mediating connector between the abstract/ethereal (a desire for a cool/chic image) and the physical (the garments and accessories that connote cool/chic). Her boss (Kyra) presumably sees a dress or accessory in a magazine or online, and Maureen is dispatched to physically track it down and acquire it for her. The materialism and physicality of high-end fashion is unmissable in the film, but Kyra has no material or physical connection to it. We never see her touch the garments or wear them, except for in a few Google image glimpses.

As a "personal shopper" Maureen is the intermediary between another woman (Kyra) and her desired public identity (curated from the latest haute couture from the likes of Chanel and Christian Louboutin). It's a vocation at least as absurd as that of a spiritual medium, but both are commentaries on the same thing: the loneliness of the modern world, where "connection" is ubiquitous but transcendent encounter is rare.

We rarely see Maureen in actual, physical conversation with anyone. When we do they are mostly brief, transactional exchanges. The more substantive communications and connections for Maureen happen via Skype (with her boyfriend, who we only see on a computer screen) or (especially) in text exchanges. The most unsettling and cinematically provocative sequence happens via iMessage, when on the train between Paris and London she has a rapid-fire text exchange with an unknown number. Maureen has no idea who this ghostly, disembodied, mystery presence is who she is texting with, but she paradoxically seems drawn to connect with him/her/it. The way Assayas captures the iconic "..." blue and gray chat bubbles on an iPhone screen is compelling and unnerving, perhaps because we are now so familiar with the rhythms and cadences (as well as the dopamine rush) of sending and receiving texts.

What does it mean that Maureen becomes most animated when she is in digital correspondence with a disembodied, possibly inhuman presence? What does it mean that as she travels around London and Paris, visiting some of the most luxurious fashion houses and touching and feeling the finest jewels and fabrics, she seems bored by the materiality of it all but compelled by the text messages, YouTube videos and Google searches on her devices' screens? What does it mean that the closest anyone gets in Personal Shopper to the physicality and embodied reality of Maureen is a doctor who examines her heart condition in the film and the audience who (in a moment of unsettling voyeurism) watches her private, taboo moment of trying on Kyra's dresses?

As well as any film in recent memory (perhaps since Spike Jonze's Her), Personal Shopper captures the Gnostic trajectory and disembodied isolation of our digital age. It's troubling to watch because we can see ourselves in it so clearly. We can recognize the ease with which Maureen flows through life on her own, OK with solitude as long as the iPhone is near. We can identify with the intrigue and almost erotic magnetism that comes with the arrival of a text message. We can relate to the scary ease with which relationships can be formed, maintained or destroyed via mediating technologies, without ever having to bother with physical interaction.

In our secular age, the search for transcendence takes on many forms, and technology offers a major conduit/medium by which we seek to transcend our human limitations. That technology often feels like "magic" (see Arthur C. Clarke's third law) shows how much it functions as a substitute for the supernatural, as a proxy for God.

I've been thinking recently about the Apple logo, with its iconic bite mark that brings to mind the temptation of Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in Eden. The original sin came from a desire to transgress limitation and substitute oneself for God, assuming a god-like freedom and autonomy to freely consume on no one's terms but one's own. That the iPhone bears this iconic symbol is too perfect, for this is exactly the temptation it offers. It invites us, beckons us to supplant the supernatural with the gods of consumerism and autonomy. And yet on the other side of this temptation, just like when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, is a heavy isolation.

Though there are literal ghosts in Personal Shopper at times, the ones that are most haunting are the metaphorical ghosts in the machines... serpents in Eden luring us into "connection" and tempting us to overestimate our power and sovereignty, but leaving us more ashamed and alone. We are haunted by technology because for all its magic it cannot supply the transcendence it promises. So we continue to search in our haunted house world, grasping for specters, signs and the sublime.