Self-Mediation and Repressed Affect in Personal Shopper

Curator's Note

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016) exposes the affective complexities of self-mediation, showing how one’s felt experience exceeds the image one presents to the camera. This process of repression is specifically exposed in one crucial sequence. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) who is waiting in Paris for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother Lewis’ ghost, spends the majority of the film engaged in a text conversation with an anonymous caller. It is suggested (but ultimately never proven) that Maureen is texting with Ingo (Lars Eidinger), the former lover of her employer, the actress Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), in an attempt to frame her for her murder. In one of their text exchanges, Maureen has been lured to a hotel for what she thinks will be her first face-to-face meeting with her unknown interlocutor. Instead, Ingo fails to materialize and their text exchange continues. Immediately after her arrival in the hotel room, Maureen receives a text asking her to send a picture. Dressed in a sequined Chanel dress stolen from Kyra, Maureen proceeds to take a mirrored selfie.

Here, importantly, the film undercuts and interrogates the assumptions that surround the selfie as a format that can authentically exchange for the self. As we see Maureen in the finished product of the selfie photograph, she appears confident and well-polished. Set in dialectical tension with her selfie, however, this pivotal scene captures what Deleuze calls an affection-image, as a look of self-doubt and insecurity sweeps over Maureen’s face immediately preceding her confession of shame and self-alienation as she texts back: “I feel ridiculous. It’s not me. I’m ashamed of myself. I don’t know why I came." In juxtaposition to the apparent truth of the photograph, Assayas’ film reveals to us Maureen’s affective response to it. Rather than sustain or confirm the illusion that the selfie presents oneself, instead the film suggests its suppressive nature, which at best cannot reveal and at worst explicitly contradicts the affective scenario of its production.  


great work, Jenny - there is something darkly funny and a little unnerving about a spiritualistic medium misleading and miscommunicating through digital media. is Maureen being manipulated by mysterious external forces, or is the protagonist deceiving herself in a manner made all the more convincing by contemporary technologies?

Thanks for your comment Joe. In my longer dissertation chapter on Personal Shopper, I come down on the fact that the film ulitmately has faith in the specter but that Maureen is constantly missing its presence because of the (narcissistic) distraction of digital media, particularly the smartphone. But I also think Assayas is interested in the legacy of spiritualism and how it emerged around the birth of all these new technologies in the nineteenth century including cinema. This is something Dewey's post I think will touch on later in the week but I think Assayas is interested in how digital mediation makes anything being irretrievable seem impossible, so Maureen has trouble accepting both her brother's death and her inability to find him again, but she is looking in all the wrong places!!

It does seem like there is some overlap between Personal Shopper and Unfriended, Jenny.  But, do you think the genre payfulness of Assayas' film plays a role in our "faith" in the image as well?  The "ghost" that Maureen sees EXPLODES into the film in an unusual way.  It is almost as if at that moment the movie embraces the horror film aesthetic in order to represent an affective experience that its aesthetic form up until that point just could not contain.   It is almost as if we have to have a meta-moment to live Maureen's sensations.  Did that really just happen???

I like the idea that the female spirit that Maureen encounters is a manifestation of her repressed affect (grief, frustration) especially given the spewing ectoplasm! I also think there is a social commentary (ie the ignorance of history and perhaps of Millennial narcissism) in that scene as well: Maureen, an American, is waiting in a century if not centuries old Parisian mansion waiting for a sign from her twin rather than expecting another ghost to appear, which is exactly what she gets!!

I was struck by your post, Jenny, in that it sounds like Maureen takes a selfie after essentially being catfished by the spectral presence on the other end of her text exchange. Your description of this scene provides perhaps an interesting commentary on the expectant moment of meeting up after connecting through dating apps, a thoroughly mobile-phone-era affective moment. The immersion in the textual exchange doesn't reduce the anxiety over whether one's bodily presence and self will match the crafted profile one presents through an app's interface. In this case, Maureen's catfishing by the specter draws her into an emotional state of unease and distrust of the "reality" of her selfie image. I'm interested in this scene in which the self-image becomes "surplus," an uncontainable, excessive image. 

Thanks Joe. Andrea and Dewey's posts really pick up the thread re: the uncontainable self-image. I hadn't thought of the idea of catfishing even though that is a very spot-on comparison. One thing I've been thinking more about lately with the film is Maureen's job as a personal shopper and her intimacy to celerbrity, which the text exchange encourages her to escalate through her masquerading in Kyra's clothes, sleeping in her bed etc: This storyline really speaks to the proximity to celebrities within social media, our treatment of them as a type of property but also our closeness to them through the format of photo-sharing sites, where our pictures and selfies appear among theirs in a seemingly non-hierarchical scroll (although of course there are all types of hierarchizing systems in place in the software) nevertheless that is the user experience. And of course, the paratextual celebrity of Kristen Stewart really intensifies this whole dynamic. One thing I've noticed in a lot of what I call narcisscinema is the reliance on paratextual celebrity . . .

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