The other day, preeminent trans film critic Willow Maclay wrote a great piece regarding a definitional understanding of trans cinema. In it, she argues that what makes the growing trans cinema canon so exciting is that there is no hard and fast definition — what we call trans films resonate with trans people on an individual level, and for deeply personal reasons. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve written two pieces this year, on Alita: Battle Angel and Phoenix, which reckon with films that are not explicitly about trans people, yet still depict a close approximation of my experience of being a trans woman. These are trans films because I say they are, because I see myself in them even if I’m not meant to.
Personal Shopper, I was delighted to discover, joins the list of films that have done that to me. It’s not quite about dysphoria in the way Alita and Phoenix are, but it tackles areas of trans living that those films don’t. This is a film about the vague fixations and dissatisfactions that (at least for me) precede a gender revelation. It’s about wanting to be someone else, but not knowing who that person is. It’s about being drawn to things you’re not supposed to be, for reasons you can’t explain.
The always stellar Kristen Stewart brings her trademark mumbling monotone to the role of Maureen, a shiftless young woman who juggles a search for the ghost of her twin brother with her job as a personal shopper for a supermodel named Kyra. She begins to receive texts from a mysterious harasser who may or may not be a ghost. The anonymous texter challenges her with personal questions, drawing out of her admissions that she would not otherwise make, perhaps even to herself . At one point, they ask if she wants to be someone else, and she says yes, but she doesn’t know who. The texter tells her that they can’t figure it out for her. In my Phoenix piece, I talked a lot about the closeted desire for someone else to recognize transness in you, to tell you who you’re supposed to be so you can stop agonizing over a decision that is only yours to make. I feel the same turmoil in Personal Shopper.
Later, the texter forces her to admit that she wants to try on Kyra’s dresses. “Because it is forbidden?” they ask. She puts down her phone.
The scene where Maureen nervously strips down and, with tentative movement, puts on Kyra’s complex dress just about ripped my heart out. I remembered the mornings I would spend in my room, when everyone else was out of the house, trying on old dresses that had been left in a crawl space. I remembered the rush I got from twirling in place and letting the hem wrap around my legs, and the terror I felt when I heard the garage door coming up. It was a forbidden act, and yet I felt compelled to do it by a voice I didn’t recognize. It was only later that I heard the voice as that of the person I wanted to be, the person I could be.
Personal Shopper wraps up with a moment of such comforting closure that I wish I’d been able to see it back when I was in the darkest days of questioning. Maureen demands to know whether the spirit that’s been haunting her is her late brother, by knocking once for yes and twice for no. The spirit doesn’t answer her. “Is it just me?” she asks. One knock. Fade to white. To be a closeted trans person is to be haunted by yourself, possessed by something that grows steadily more familiar over time. The spirit draws you to things you think you’re not supposed to do or be. Eventually, you realize that the ghost has been you all along.