I live with a ghost. I mean, I don’t. I’m fairly certain ghosts don’t exist. But lights come on from time to time. Cupboards open. Blinds fall down. A pair of scissors have gone missing. It’s a fairly small, fairly sparse flat. No one really comes over. These things are true. What possible explanation could there be for what is happening?
A few years ago, I woke up and saw a man sitting at the foot of my bed. He was real. And I was terrified. But in the middle of the night, my brain kicked in. I couldn’t move, not from fear, but because my body was naturally paralysed to prevent me from acting out my dreams (which generally consist of slightly more anxious versions of my real life – I have no real subconscious to speak of). I saw a man because humans have a tendency to see images where there aren’t any – clouds that look like animals, lines and dots become faces. And in the half-light, I realised that it was nothing. And I congratulated myself, the clever little rationalist that I was and how I was able to explain away something that has fooled so many other people.
We all live with ghosts. Ex-boyfriends, forgotten friends, dead parents haunt our every waking moment. They are evoked in a familiar perfume worn by a passing stranger. They are next to us when a certain song comes on the radio. They come alive in our dreams. I return again and again to the idea that cinema is the closest thing we have to memory – fragmented, simultaneously real and surreal, edited and highly rewritten. It is the best thing we have to capture the experience of living with these ghosts. That’s why at its most facile, it constantly returns to the trauma of dead wives and girlfriends; it seeks to capture the experience of attempting to get over an absence that once was filled.
Some films haunt you like those people. They follow you around in the weeks after you’ve seen them. They occupy your waking moments and dwell deep within your consciousness. They become the ways in which we relate to the world. They become part of our language of self-identification, part of our cultural mythology that imprints upon our personality. We see them, in our minds when no one else can.
Both Personal Shopper and The Innocents have an interesting relationship with ghosts. Whilst both films deal in a degree of magical realism – ghosts are real, they move through rooms and have a level of intrusion upon the material world – they somehow simultaneously introduce a level of doubt into the existence of the poltergeists. It is possible to read both films from a rational perspective; the ‘hauntings’ are a product of Stewart and Kerr’s respective imaginations. For us, the audience, it causes a deep level of engagement with the movie – it is impossible to be a passive observer. We have to ask the question, is the camera subjective or objective? Tellingly, the most direct manifestations of the phantoms are observed through windows; there is an additional invisible barrier between them and our lead characters, in much the same way that some barrier exists between them and us, the audience. We are removed from their presence; we see only what we are allowed to see, and that is only in conditions in which there can be no rational explanations for the paranormal behaviours in the movies. After all, we know no cat knocked over the glass in the kitchen.
(In both films there is an explicit intrusion of the phantasmagoria upon the real world – the aforementioned glass and scratches in Personal Shopper, and the tear drops in the classroom in The Innocents. These manifestations appear to be an explicit admission that the ghost are ‘real’ – their presence cannot be explained away as hysteria.)
Traditionally, ghosts have been depicted as manifesting during periods of sexual unrest. Puberty was seen as an anchor for the immaterial world. Both Kerr and Stewart are coping with a level of sexual frustration in the films. For Kerr, her vicar’s daughter character is deeply sexually repressed and subsequently inexperienced. Her acceptance of the governess job stems from a silly crush on the uncle (a clearly vile man) who employs her (a fact that is made more explicit in the source material of The Turn of the Screw) and she reacts to the stories of her predecessor’s relationship with Quint (a relationship which is deliberately sadomasochistic) with a prudish mix of revulsion and fascination. (Paul Schrader has made a career out of exploring this tension, largely found within himself.)
Stewart has a more complex sexuality in her performance. She flirts with at least the imagery of bondage, and her sexual fantasies seem to stem from the appropriation of other’s lives and belongings – largely due to the illicit nature of these acts. A clear manifestation of a spirit comes after her act of masturbation. Stewart is becoming one of the great queer performers of cinema. Whilst men are present within her world, they are directly presented as distant, unfulfilling and dangerous (properly dangerous, not teasingly dangerous). She is capable of acting with her naked body in a completely non-sexualised way – a not insignificant feat – and her sex, seems largely an act of onanism. Both Kerr and Stewart are operating in their films within the world of women; the male intrusion into these worlds does not end in any sense of fulfilment.
Clearly Stewart (and less so Kerr) are surviving as traumatised individuals. It is effecting both their grips on reality (of which the ghosts may be a metaphorical representation). For Stewart, this may explain why she is so reciprocative to the clearly dangerous texts she is receiving. For Kerr, this may prove to be an explanation for her descent into the indecent assault at the end of the film. After all, abuse is a learnt behaviour.
In Personal Shopper, Assayas uses fairly violent fades to black to signify the passing of time. Clayton uses montage in his scene transitions, opening the world of Sheffield Park to us – a world that is teeming with wildlife. The soundtrack is alive with buzzing and flapping and hissing, and this, combined with the imagery of beetles clambering out of cherubs, peculiarly removes us from the natural world and into something far more horrific. Both directors were seeking to rise above the oppressive cinematic landscapes they were operating within. Assayas has almost made a career of employing elements of genre onto more traditional French Arthouse, and Clayton sought to imbibe the traditional (and highly restrictive) British Costume Drama with a sense of the Southern Gothic. They were both directors producing work that is a direct act of criticism; Personal Shopper is in several places a meditation on the act of watching films, and The Innocents works as interpretation of literary criticism (though Christopher Frayling has determined that the film is a closer version of a stage adaption of The Turn of the Screw, rather than the source novel.) They are both wilfully hard films to categorise and define.
Quint is described as having ‘the devil’s own eye,’ in The Innocents. Is that how we watch movies? Are we taking pleasure from seeing the darkest explorations of human existence? Are we revelling in trauma and abuse and the emotional degradation of our protagonists? Do we enjoy the suffering of others a little too much? Perhaps all these ghosts are there to remind us that we will carry these sufferings with us. Perhaps they will anchor us to the material world…