Haunted by Grief: A Review of Personal Shopper (2016)

Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, begins with the presence of an ghost. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) wanders through an empty house. Doors slam in the distance, things creak. She speaks a name and we see a flicker of something in the shadows behind her, though it’s not entirely clear what.

It’s a perfect set up for a horror movie — the woman alone in the house, the strange sounds, the ghost — and yet, Personal Shopper confounds the viewer by breaking with the expected tropes. Yes, there are ghosts (or something resembling them), but they are mostly harmless, just whispering figures in the dark.

Maureen is a medium, like her twin brother. Each made a pact to the other — whoever dies first would return as a spirit and communicate with the living sibling, proving the existence of an afterlife. So, following her brother’s death, Maureen is in Paris waiting for some sign, some message.

What complicates her search is that she is not a believer (something I’ve never seen from any other medium in a movie before). While Maureen admits to be a medium and being able to sense entities in the world around her, she is not convinced that these entities are human spirits. Even though evidence of a spirit or haunting is present — events that others would take as proof — she remains uncertain as to whether or not this is her brother or something else.

Her pursuit is a blend of doubt and longing. She is desperate to find proof of her brother and finds herself caught in a holding pattern — riding around Paris on a moped and going through the motions of her job as a personal shopper for a celebrity.

Maureen is a woman lost in grief.

One of the most confounding moments in the movie is when it makes a jarring tonal shift as Maureen starts receiving messages from an unknown sender, someone who knows about her and what she’s been doing. Shaken, she at first reaches for the hope that this could be the longed-for proof of her brother’s spirit, only to quickly realize the messages are more likely from a stalker and she becomes wrapped up in a dangerous game.

As a viewer, I found myself confused at first by this storyline. But taking in the context of her character, her choices makes a certain kind of emotional sense. A person lost in their grief might go looking for ways to feel anything else but hurt.

Kristen Stewart’s performance throughout Personal Shopper is stunning. The is the second movie she’s done with Assayas, the first being Clouds of Sils Maria — a movie I adore.  In many instances throughout Personal Shopper, Stewart is alone in a room having to carry the emotional resonance of the moment. And she does so with a beautiful naturalism, bringing up an interior experience to the screen (check out the video essay below for a look at how her acting style has evolved of the years).

Ultimately Personal Shopper is not a horror movie. It defies that expectation at every turn, sometimes in startling and uncomfortable ways. The ending leaves questions confusingly unanswered and is ambiguous to a degree that will likely make some unhappy with the experience. I found myself sitting in silence as the credits rolled, followed by an immediate internet search to see what others thought of the ending and how it was interpreted. It made me wish that I had had someone else watching with me, someone to discuss and debate all the possible meanings.


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Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI

Here are Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V of my journey through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

The Story

Song of Susannah is a cool 400 pages or so — quite a relief from the 850+ pages of the two previous volumes in the series. Strictly on a physical level, it’s a lot less book to heft around. However, the condensed nature of the book does not negate the value of its storytelling. Song of Susannah is tight in its action and character development, which makes the story all the stronger. 

At the end of Wolves of the Calla, the battle was won but the katet was divided — Susannah, pregnant with a demon’s child and being overtaken by Mia (a new personality), has stollen the Black 13 (a powerful and dangerous stone) and absconded to another world and time. Song of Susannah opens in the midst of this loss, with Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Callahan nursing their wounds and working to come up with a plan to both save Susannah (in one time and place) and obtain the empty lot with the rose from an obsessive bookseller named Tower (who exists in a completely different time and place).

All their planning doesn’t help much, however, because ka has its own designs, immediately setting everything awry — Roland and Eddie find themselves fighting thugs while chasing after the bookseller, while Jake, Callahan, and Oy find themselves going after Susannah.

Unlike the previous book (with it’s slow build to battle), the action in Song of Susannah comes quick and bloody. Roland and Eddie are immediately attacked when they land in the past, and Susannah’s struggles are constant, if internal. The intensity is ever present, since the characters (and the readers) know they are facing virtual ticking bombs — time is desperately short. Failure to achieve either of their goals will result in death of Susannah and/or the destruction of all the universes. 

Structurally, Song of Susannah is different from any other book in the series — each chapter is titled as a verse, making the book itself the overall “song.” Each chapter also concludes with a two stanzas of a commala, which is a kind of call and response song. The structure and inclusion of verse lends the story a folky vibe, like a legendary tale shared over a campfire. This feels fitting considering the revelations that come later in the book, with the writing down of tales being vitally important to the characters survival. 

Commala-ka-kate
You’re in the hands of fate.
No matter if it’s real or not,
The hour groweth late.

Commala-come-eight!
The hour groweth late!
No matter what shade ya cast
You’re in the hands of fate.

Continue reading “Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI”

Culture Consumption: June 2019

Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, games, and podcasts.

Books

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter - Theodora GossI loved The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. The story is about Mary Jekyll, left alone and penniless following her mother’s death. Curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past, she discovers that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be still be alive. With the hope of a reward to solve her financial challenges, she pursues what little clues she has — only to discover Diana, Hyde’s daughter instead. As the mystery thickens, Mary learns of more women who have been experimented upon by their fathers — Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. Together, the women begin to uncover a secret society of scientist attempting to transmute the human body in order to unleash it’s potential.

A lot of novels, short stories, comics, and movies have taken on the task of presenting new versions of classic horror and scifi — this was the kind of retelling I didn’t know I was longing for. Reading the Alchemist’s Daughter was a delight, presenting a litany of clever, intelligent, strong women who find companionship and support in each other through their trials, while stuggling against cultural norms.  The style of storytelling is also witty and fun — with the girls interjecting into the record with their own commentary and arguments. I love all of these women and I can’t wait to read about more of their adventures in the next volume.
Continue reading “Culture Consumption: June 2019”

The Stark Beauty of Iceland

View of Reykjavík from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja tower (a Lutheran church).
View of Reykjavík from the top of the tower of the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church.

Iceland is a country of stark beauty — one in which no pictures truly capture the experience of being there, present in that place of fire and water.

Driving from the airport can seem at first underwhelming. The surrounding countryside feels barren — until you realize that the fields are actually comprised of lava rock covered in a spongy grey-green moss, which lends everything an alien appearance. We were lucky enough to come when the Lupine was blooming, covering the landscape in bright purple-blue patches of vibrant color.

lupine in Iceland
Bright blue-purple lupine covered the fields of Iceland in June.

Further exploration of Iceland reveals a grand compilation of stunning landscapes, making it feel like we were traversing different countries while driving along. Over the course of our trip, we saw bubbling hot springs and geysers, astounding waterfalls, black sand beaches, craggy coastlines, and stony green mountains.

hot springs
Bubbling pools of sulfuric hot springs at Geysir.
Kirkjufellsfoss at the Snaefellsnes National Park, Iceland.
Kirkjufellsfoss at the Snaefellsnes National Park, Iceland.
Gulfoss Falls, part of the Golden Circle in Iceland.
Gulfoss Falls, part of the Golden Circle in Iceland.

While the weather ranged from cool to quite cold, we were blessed with beautiful weather on our trip. Generally, Iceland tends to be quite rainy during the summer months — but we mostly experienced sun-spattered days and were only hit with rain on our last days. The biggest weather challenge was the constant wind, which on one hike was so intense I thought it would push me off the slim trail.

selfie - the wind in Iceland
The wind in Iceland was intense — to say the least.

A lot of blog posts I’ve read about Iceland have focused on how expensive traveling within the country is — and it is true that it is not a cheap place to travel, the prices were not as exorbitant as we expected them to be (with the exception of the gas prices). The cost of food, for example, felt like it was on par with eating at decent restaurants in Bay Area, California, where my siblings and I are from.

All of my siblings and I fell in love with Iceland. The people, the communities, the landscapes, all made us feel as though the seven days that we were there were not nearly enough. I hope we will all be able to return at some point in the near future and take even more of the country in.

Seljalandsfoss, a stunning waterfall with a near constant rainbow, was my favorite experience of the trip.
Seljalandsfoss, a stunning waterfall with a near constant rainbow, was my favorite experience of the trip.
One of the reasons Seljalandsfoss awed me was being able to stand behind the falls in a cavern-like alcove and watch the sun “set” behind the water. I had such a lovely moment of peace while I was there.

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New Books in Poetry: As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams

A new episode of the New Books in Poetry podcast is up, in which I get to speak with John Sibley Williams about his book As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Books, 2019).

John Sibley Williams’ As One Fire Consumes Another presents a familiar world full of burnings carried out on both the grand and intimate scale. The newspaper-like columns of prose poetry provide a social critique of the violent side of American culture centered within the boundaries of self and family. Although an apocalyptic tension permeates throughout, these poems envision the kind of fires that not only provide destruction but also illuminate a spark of hope.  

“Dust rises from the road & there is
too much curve to resolve the edges
of embankment & asphalt. Backfire
keeps the pastureland carefully lit.
Static keeps us wanting for another
kind of song.”

— from “Story that Begins and Ends with Burning

You can listen to the interview here or on the podcast app of your choice.


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