Thanks to “Personal Shopper,” Rebecca McCallum found solace.
I didn’t know it right away, but personal customer offered a meditation on my personal journey with anxiety. Its familiarity both frightened and comforted me as the narrative crumbled with each watch, giving way to waves of emotion and mood that rose and fell as I willingly surrendered to each frame.
As a longtime fan of the Projections podcast, I first became aware of Olivier Assayas movie 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 — Podcast Screenings. It wasn’t until several months later that I saw the film for the first time. But immediately an obsession formed, which spawned multiple revisits in a short period of time. Thanks to an ever-evolving relationship with horror, I know that when I respond to visual text in this way, it means a deeper, unspoken attachment is at play. It’s a sign that something is wrong. intrinsic in me has been awakened or touched. With a dry mouth and an allegro heartbeat, I fixed my gaze on the screen as a personal response to personal customer 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 constant commuting to pick up and return clothes for her employer. Along with this, having lost her brother Lewis to a lingering health issue, she is also struggling to let go of his passing as she waits in hopes 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 that escalates into a tense exchange over an extended period of time. Events take an increasingly dark turn and this leads her to question her mental state as she navigates her way through grief.
Dissociation, prohibition and search for identity
As someone who struggles with anxiety on a daily basis, I’m all too aware of how debilitating it can be. When the cloak of fear begins to wrap around you, there is an enveloping, claustrophobic sense of dread that consumes you. As the chatter escalates and physical symptoms manifest, dissociation sets in. As the film begins, Maureen returns to the unoccupied family home of her deceased brother Lewis.
The emptiness of the structure is a clear reflection of its own internal emptiness, a state that I have inhabited intermittently for many years. Unfortunately, no matter how many times the cycle happens, when anxiety takes over mind and body, I’m still forced to push people away and resist any communication. While Maureen’s life isn’t devoid of those who care for her, she seems to exist in a liminal space for much of the film and, in particular, has little to no contact with Kyra. Instead, they leave each other messages making their interactions impersonal and cold.
It’s Maureen’s job to tend to Kyra’s whims and hedonistic demands. As she travels through Europe, any growth or progress in her own life is stunted. In caring for others, Maureen neglects to care for herself, a fatal mistake I have made on more than one occasion. In an effort to mentally escape the limiting and agonizing nature of anxiety, the brain often turns to uncharitable comparisons and engages in endless “what if” exercises. Maureen can often be seen dressing in Kyra’s high end clothes. This attempt to shed one’s own skin to try out other identities speaks to the weightlessness appeal 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. By wearing her outfits – which she knows to be forbidden – she goes out of her normal behavior. However, assuming an alternate identity, albeit temporarily, symbolizes how, by being stuck and unable to move forward in her life, she no longer recognizes herself. In turn, by donning the clothes, she also rejects her established identity; in short, she covets the possibility of being someone else, an all too seductive idea when one is in the grip of anxiety.
Portals as possibilities
Through hard work and a good support system, I’ve managed to create a safety net that I can deploy when I get overwhelmed. Part of that is recognizing that there are alternative possibilities to the ones I create in my own headspace. The recurring motif of portals in personal customer reflects both the expansive and limitless potential life has to offer and (as long as we keep an open mind) a promise of hope on the horizon for the future. Along with going in and out of closets (representative of portals to infinite versions of ourselves) and donning a dress covered in silver discs that glow like actual miniature catwalks, we learn that Maureen’s brother , Lewis, built cabinets which, with their multiple drawers, are another nod to this theme.
Additionally, the art that Maureen finds herself so transfixed by includes paintings containing circular shapes, acting as spheres capable of transport. Technology also has a role to play. This comes with a caveat, because while some portals are nurturing and supportive, like his Skype conversations with Gary (Ty Olwin), others are dark and destructive, as seen in his text message exchange with Ingo (Lars Indinger).
While the portals of personal customer represent possibilities, Maureen is shown for much of the film in a limbo-like state. Suspended in grief, she often occupies what might be called “in-between places,” including airport lounges, escalators, tunnels, and carriage passages. Never settling, she always travels from place to place, back and forth. In that sense, it is in arrested development, much like the feeling of being stuck that can set in when anxiety keeps you frozen in time.
The many doors that open and close (the ones in Lewis’s house, Kyra’s apartment, and the elevator/hotel doors) are physical representations of the inner world of our minds and the outer world. awaits us, offering alternative possibilities to either allow change in our lives or exclude it. Near the beginning of the film, Maureen draws a door on an artist’s sketchbook. While this could be seen as denoting a willingness to contact Lewis in the spirit world, it could also be an early indication that she wishes to move on with her life.
tug of war
When my anxiety is at its height, thoughts of alienation from the world and from myself are at the forefront of my experience. There are times when the pull of the past enters into a mental tussle between the need to look ahead and not let my health and happiness be overshadowed by intrusive thoughts and exhaustion.
During personal customer, we see Maureen go from being held back in the past waiting for a sign from Lewis, to finally choosing life. In conversation with Lewis’ 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 slowly moving towards letting go. It’s through sharing with others that I often come to realize that I can’t let my anxiety be the overriding voice in every decision I make.
I also sympathize closely with Maureen’s admission to Lara, “I should have listened a while ago” as reflecting the crushing guilt I felt when others gave me advice I didn’t care about. haven’t felt strong enough to act more often than I care to remember. Likewise, it was only by accepting that anxiety is part of who I am, rather than something to be fought against, that I was able to find my own inner peace. In this regard, Maureen’s comment that “an invisible presence is all around us” is deeply resonant.
A sanctuary filled with mountains
I never waited personal customer come to such a personal agreement with me. But I feel grateful that I found him (or maybe he found me?). It has helped me to understand and consolidate both the dark times in my life and to recognize that there will always be a power within me to smash whatever my anxiety tells me I cannot do or I do not deserve. By the end of the film, when Maureen reaches the mountains of Oman, even though she still has more self-exploration to do, there’s an uplifting note of optimism that she’s made the first move. I may not be in my ideal place in terms of confidence and self-perception. But I know I’ve found a way to access my own mountain-filled sanctuary when I need it. And for now, that’s enough.