Guts Reaction: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper is a slow, mournful film about a girl who lives in two worlds and may or may not be haunted. It’s also way scarier than most textbook horror films.

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Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has been staying in Paris with her twin brother Lewis, when he dies of a congenital heart problem which she also shares.

She’s a medium – of course – as is Lewis and they promised each other if one died they would give the living twin a sign. So Maureen is living alone in Paris, wandering around the wreckage of Lewis’s life – he had a girlfriend, a house and a project – waiting for this sign to come.

At the same time, Maureen is a personal shopper for an A-list celebrity, Kyra. Kyra displays all the worst kind of aristocratic traits associated with fame and glamour.

Maureen despises the work but at the same time she cannot resist trying on the designer clothes and shoes she chooses for, and delivers to Kyra. The film goes to great lengths to establish what a taboo this is.

I lived in Paris when I was in my twenties, and it was a haunted time for me too, albeit for very different reasons from Maureen. Seeing her scoot along the boulevards as the evening draws in and the lights of the cafes come on was just magical.

There’s also a scene when Maureen takes the Eurostar to London – I’ve sat in all those locations several times, and it gave me a shiver up my spine.

But there's a lot more. There’s a psychopath, who the film barely spends any time on, because actually psychopaths aren’t that interesting. What takes the fore is Maureen's terror, which is so real it reaches out of the screen in a way few conventional horror films manage these days.

One enigmatic scene plays on absence and is reminiscent of an all-time great in French cinema, Hidden.

Supernatural elements are handled conventionally – they may or may not be Maureen’s own emotions – but with great skill because they never displaces the real story, one of bereavement and coming of age.

There are many ways to interpret the end of the movie, but it’s still satisfying.

All in all, Personal Shopper is a wonderful film.

 

Scary mountains - Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I am a BIG fan of Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Not much frightens me but even years after reading it, the central image still gets me in the viscera.

So I was delighted to discover she'd written a new novel in the same vein, Thin Air. Another period ghost story satirising the rigid masculinity, class prejudices and colonial superiority of 1930s British explorers.

Except this time it's about a team of mountaineers scaling a peak in Nepal, rather than a scientific expedition to the Arctic.

Paver writes brilliantly about extreme physical conditions, and about groups of men living on the edge of their nerves. The atmosphere of dread forms with crystalline and ineluctable clarity, like an icicle.

I loved the central relationship between the brothers on the climbing expedition. My only complaints would be that I would have liked a deeper exploration of this relationship.

Reading Thin Air, I was reminded of a film called the Dyatlov Pass Incident. I had it on my watchlist for a long time but ultimately it got away from me. It's about the true story of nine Russian hikers who were found frozen to death on Kholat Syakhl (Dead Mountain) after inexplicably fleeing their tents. I found the idea hauntingly sad and maybe that's why in the end I never watched the film.

But there's a whole sub-genre out there on those mountains. I hope Paver goes back to it, and others follow.