Suspense and the Supernatural in Personal Shopper and Let the Right One In
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) obscured from our view in Personal Shopper (2016).
Categorized as an arthouse thriller, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016) details the life of Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a self-proclaimed medium, after the death of her twin brother, Lewis. Maureen puts her life on hold as she waits for a sign from Lewis, who was also a medium, from beyond. In Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (2008), Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a bullied and lonely kid, forms a close relationship with his new neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson). As they spend more time with one another, Oskar begins to learn more about Eli’s mysterious background and eventually learns of her vampiric condition. Although each film operates within a different genre, Personal Shopper as a supernatural/thriller hybrid and Let the Right One In as a vampire film, both employ elements of suspense through the characters’ search for a connection and the formal structures of the films themselves. The concept of “deframing,” proposed by Pascal Bonitzer, is described as “the displaced angle, the radical off-centeredness of a point of view that mutilates the body and expels it beyond the frame to focus on dead empty zones of barren décor …” (200). This process of deframing, which occurs through editing, sound, and the use of architectural thresholds within the frame, generates suspense in the audience. The disclosure of actions happening offscreen is deferred, and characters transition strangely from one world to another. As such, in both films, the desires and fears of the protagonists — and by extension, of the audience — are manifested through the creation of suspense by deframing and the use of the offscreen, in addition to the infiltration of the supernatural into everyday life.
Personal Shopper operates as a hybrid of the supernatural horror film and suspense thriller. In Stephen Prince’s overview of the horror film, he states that, “Ghosts and other supernatural manifestations suggest that life reaches other conclusions beyond death or religious resurrection” (387). The supernatural aspect of the film hinges on Maureen and Lewis’ status as mediums and their oath that “whoever died first would send the other a sign,” which supports Prince’s idea of provoking “anxiety, fear, and/or revulsion” in the audience due to the blurring of the line between life and death (387). One of the first scenes to showcase “life beyond death” is when Maureen is in Lewis’ house at night trying to make contact with him. The scene builds slowly by heightening the awareness of the audience through sound. The offscreen consists of dogs barking, wind rushing, wind chimes ringing, creaking inside the house, and water dripping as the camera is focused on Maureen wandering around in the darkness. After pleading for Lewis to give her a better sign, she hears a loud bang, once again offscreen, that leads her into the direction of the room she was first in. The camera focuses on a table, showing deep scratches that weren’t there before. The camera trails upward to Maureen’s face as an apparition materializes behind her. In this moment, the ghost establishes the existence of the beyond, and therefore, the possibility that Lewis could be out there to give her a sign. The incorporation of the supernatural reinforces Maureen’s longing to make contact and her fear of losing her relationship with Lewis. The anxiety built up through the intensity of sound and the physical manifestation of the ghost align the viewer with Maureen as a believer in the beyond, and, as a result, conjures a similar desire within the viewer to see Maureen and Lewis communicate.
Framed within the frame, and gazing into the offscreen, Maureen feels out an eerie, possibly haunted house.
Expanding on the thriller genre, Martin Rubin writes that “the thriller works primarily to evoke such feelings as suspense, fright, mystery … it emphasizes visceral gut-level feelings rather than more sensitive, cerebral, or emotionally heavy feelings” (5). Although this is a general classification of thrillers, Personal Shopper contradicts the notion of suspense being absent from sensitive feelings due to the most thrilling parts of the film revolving around potential conversations with Lewis. Directly after the ghost scene, the shot shows Maureen leaving through the doors and windows of the house. The camera remaining positioned from inside the house denotes a presence, as if something or someone is watching her. The scene cuts to her riding toward the train station for her trip to London. The film cuts to her phone, showing a text from an unknown number that says “I know You.” As she continues preparing for her travels, the number texts her repeatedly, prompting her to ask who they are. The conversation progresses, with Maureen eventually asking questions such as “R u real?” and “R u alive or dead?” before building up to typing “Lewis?” Her hands shake and her breathing quickens as she sends the message, after which she puts her phone on airplane mode. During these moments, the film cuts back and forth between the phone screen and Maureen’s reactions, demonstrating the art of deframing. The shots consisting of only her hands typing on the phone screen cause Maureen to function as a stand-in for the audience, with her body cut by the frame. The experience is thus shared between Maureen and the audience, which highlights the universality of anxiety in the ordinary activity of texting. Usually not much thought is given to who people are texting, but in this scenario, the element of the unknown serves to exacerbate Maureen’s desperation to make contact with her brother. While the experience elicits a visceral response, the idea of the mystery contact being Lewis automatically combines the suspenseful with the emotionally heavy, contrary to Rubin’s generalization of thrillers. Similar to the supernatural experience with the ghost, this scene showcases the unease that accompanies the distinction between the living and the dead as it is blended into everyday life.
The ghostly uncertainty of the respondent’s identity heightens Maureen’s (and the viewer’s) anxiety.
Furthermore, the employment of deframing and the offscreen is present in more examples throughout the film to underscore other parts of her relationship with Lewis that transcend metaphysical communication. One such example is when Maureen visits the doctor for a check-up on her heart condition, which Lewis also had and died from. The scene begins with a monitor showing an ultrasound of Maureen’s heart. The camera angle shifts downward to focus on Maureen on the examination table. Her torso is naked, but instead of the nudity being sensationalized, it is downplayed through a medical and functional lens. Although she’s positioned in the middle of the frame, the edges are occupied with the doctor and hospital machinery in the foreground. The use of the ultrasound screen within the frame of the shot highlights the system of doubles at play with Maureen and Lewis. They are twins, they are both mediums, they share the same heart condition, and Maureen’s androgynous appearance reduces their difference on the basis of gender. The parallel that exists between them, which is illustrated through deframing, affirms Maureen’s fear of dying and the lack of assurance of an afterlife through Lewis. The ending of the film attempts to reconcile this by exhibiting another supernatural occurrence with Maureen. At this point in the film, she has traveled to Oman to visit her friend/possible boyfriend, Gary (Ty Olwin). As she makes the journey to his room, extreme long shots of the landscape are spaced between shots of Maureen within the car and shots of Maureen walking to the room on foot. After putting her stuff down, the offscreen sounds of children playing and birds chirping once again heighten the senses of the audience, which is followed by the sound of a door opening or closing. The camera follows Maureen as she opens the doors of a room to see a glass floating in midair before it suddenly drops to the ground. Thinking it’s Lewis, Maureen asks a series of questions with one knock meaning yes and two knocks meaning no. She asks, “Lewis, is it you?” With no response, she asks the question again, this time adding, “Or is it just me?” This elicits a one knock response and then the scene fades to white. Despite the one knock being unclear in which question it was answering, Maureen can apply the answer however she sees fit. Her conversation either confirmed Lewis’ existence in the beyond, thereby fulfilling her desire to talk to him, or gave her the chance to move on without waiting for a sign from the afterlife that would never come. The fade to white indicates hopefulness for Maureen and potential closure with her brother’s passing.
In order to compare Personal Shopper to Let the Right One In, the conventions of the vampire genre must be explored, as they set the first major distinction between the two films. As discussed by Hunt et al., “Of the main undead archetypes, vampires have the longest history in popular fiction and the media, but at the same time, they have rarely been more current.” This is supported by the resurgence of modern vampire series and films, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, True Blood, Let the Right One In, and more. The vampire figure typically exhibits enhanced intelligence, strength, and attractiveness, while being a representation of foreignness or “otherness.” Argued by Milly Williamson, the “otherness” and isolation serve as “an attractive outsiderdom … in a culture where the dominant experience for the self is predominantly marginalisation and outsiderdom” (Hunt et al. 7). Although Personal Shopper focuses on the outsiderdom of Maureen and her loneliness after the death of Lewis, the supernatural and thriller genres aren’t characterized by isolation. Life as a transient and not being able to “fit in” with the crowd are trademarks of the vampire genre. While this outsiderdom for vampires can take many forms depending on the character, Let the Right One In deviates from the sensationalized benefits of the vampire lifestyle, to instead focus on “the sympathetic vampire, whose interior experience of suffering and pain … is a significant modern generic convention…at a cultural moment marked by anomie and social dislocation” (Hunt et al. 7). This suffering is underscored in Let the Right One In by presenting vampiric characteristics as burdens, in addition to the story taking place in the cold, snowy Stockholm environment.
One of the first scenes to present a deglamorized view of the vampire life is when Eli’s caretaker, Håkan (Per Ragnar), kills a man to get blood for her. The scene begins with the camera positioned between trees in the woods, watching Håkan from a distance. Before taking him down, he starts a conversation with a stranger. Now nighttime, the camera then pans across the woods to show Håkan lugging the man’s body up on a tree using a rope as a pulley. He grunts as he struggles to lift the body and wears a clear tarp to prevent blood from getting on his clothes. The sound of blood pouring into the bucket dominates the soundscape, fading into a faint noise as the offscreen sound of a dog barking cuts in. The dog runs into the frame through the trees and then the film cuts to its owners trailing behind him. The use of deframing in this scene, with the camera located between trees, emphasizes the violence predicated by the vampire’s need for blood. This violence also highlights the obstacles, and therefore the suffering, that accompanies the act of killing people to survive. The disfigurement of the bodies through trees, in addition to the actual killing portrayed on screen, creates suspense among the audience as they wonder if Håkan will be caught. It’s this display of violence for the sake of a vampire that parallels Personal Shopper in that the supernatural is invading seemingly ordinary life. The owners of the dog, for example, would not expect to come across a body being drained of blood as they perform a routine walk, just as one wouldn’t expect a dead person to communicate through text message.
Håkan (Per Ragnar) flees the grisly crime scene after being discovered by a curious poodle, who creeps into the shot from the right edge. Suspense mingles with deadpan humor.
Continuing with the use of the offscreen, Eli and Oskar’s first encounter marks another significant moment where the formal structure of the film underscores their desire for a connection with each other. The scene begins with Oskar walking towards a tree and talking to it as if it’s his bully. As he pulls out a knife and asks “Are you scared?” the offscreen sound of a creaky door opening cuts in. He stabs the tree while saying, “Squeal!” and turns his head to look behind him. The camera pans so that it’s facing Oskar’s back, revealing Eli in the background. As they carry on a conversation, Eli says to Oskar, “Just so you know, I can’t be your friend.” She turns to walk away and the film cuts back to face Oskar as the offscreen sound of the door creaking open returns. Since Eli’s presence is announced offscreen, the suspense within the audience hinges on the anonymity surrounding her. At this point it’s not confirmed that she’s a vampire, but her pale appearance, in addition to her lack of warm clothes, raises questions about her condition. It’s worth noting that in this scenario, Eli’s arrival directly after Oskar’s stabbing of the tree resembles a conjuring, as if Eli is the physical manifestation of Oskar’s desire for revenge against his bullies. The idea of Eli and Oskar being two sides of the same coin resembles the same system of doubles present in Personal Shopper between Maureen and Lewis. In this moment they are connected, not just because of their longing for a meaningful bond, but because of the destructive tendencies that they both have. For Eli, her status as a vampire is innately ground in violence since her survival relies on the harming of others, whereas Oskar’s case focuses on his longing to retaliate against his tormenters. This is contrasted in Personal Shopper where the relationship and doubling of Maureen and Lewis is borne not out of violence, but love. Her grief over the loss of her brother consumes her, almost as if Lewis was a part of herself. This is not to deny the possibility of love in Eli and Oskar’s relationship, but the stabbing of the tree and Eli’s subsequent arrival supports the underlying notion that their bond is, in part, based on violence. However, this violence is not a component of Oskar and Eli’s interactions with each other. In fact, contrary to the trope of the vampire film where the living becomes undead, Oskar is never turned into a vampire by Eli. As an author of vampire cinema, Ken Gelder says that, “Let the Right One In refuses to relish the transformation of new life into something ancient, something that can live (barely) in suspended animation … like Eli herself” (37). This is another way in which Let the Right One In breaks past the confines of the vampire genre.
In combnation with the film’s recurring use of offscreen space, Eli (Lina Leandersson, left) and Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant, right) negotiate their relationship through a play on architectural thresholds–doorways and windows that are frames within the frame.
The ending of the film, however, relies on savagery as it depicts Eli, once again offscreen, killing Oskar’s bullies with their body parts being thrown into a pool. The scene begins with the group of boys confronting Oskar for his attack on one of the bullies. The film cuts back and forth between the older brother of the bully who was attacked and Oskar. The older brother threatens Oskar with the choice of staying underwater for 3 minutes or having his eye poked out with a knife. As Oskar’s head is submerged underwater, showing his struggle to breathe, the film cuts to reaction shots of the bullies’ faces. They begin to protest, but the older kid keeps Oskar’s head underwater. The camera focuses on Oskar in the pool while the muted offscreen sounds of the boys screaming and the splashing of dismembered limbs persist in the background. Oskar is then pulled out of the water by a hand and opens his eyes to see a close-up of Eli. Once again, the offscreen and the supernatural in this scene combine to illustrate the relationship between Oskar and Eli and generate suspense. The cutting to the clock and the reactions of the bullies creates anxieties as to whether Oskar will drown or make it out alive. This anxiety is then cured as Eli comes to rescue him. As Oskar and Eli have grown closer to each other, their feelings for one another cause Eli to protect him by killing the bullies. To relate this situation to the scene where they first meet, Eli is an extension of Oskar and thus Oskar’s need for revenge becomes Eli’s need for revenge. The duality to their relationship and the killings demonstrates the ordinary parts of human life intertwining with the supernatural. In Personal Shopper, the deframing and the offscreen highlight the similarities and the bonding between Maureen and Lewis, namely in the hospital scene, just as this scene emphasizes the similarities between Oskar and Eli.
Overall, both Personal Shopper and Let the Right One In employ the use of deframing and the offscreen to align the viewer with wants and concerns of the protagonists, while also signifying the boundaries and nature of the relationships that each film examines.
Bonitzer, Pascal. “Deframings.” Cahiers Du Cinéma, 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle, edited by David Wilson and Berenice Reynaud, Routledge, 2000.
Gelder, Ken. “Our Vampires, Our Neighbours.” New Vampire Cinema, edited by Ken Gelder, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Hunt, Leon, Sharon Lockyer, and Milly Williamson. “Introduction: Sometimes They Come Back–The Vampire and Zombie on Screen.” Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television, edited by Leon Hunt et al., Tauris, 2014.
Prince, Stephen. “The Horror Film.” An Introduction to Film Genres, by Lester D. Friedman et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Rubin, Martin. “Introduction.” Thrillers, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999.