Somehow, even in the now-late 2010s, it still feels like a dicey undertaking to track characters’ virtual lives honestly and meticulously in film. This is especially true in movies that are perceived as remotely “serious”. Text exchanges that pop into view, or are even superimposed on the margins of a scene, often scan like gimmicks. Facebook screenshots usually look like campy versions of the genuine article, and excessive iPhone choreography comes off like mere product placement. Luckily, some filmmakers are starting to sidestep these pitfalls and stake out new ground. Contemporary consumer tech and social media were integrated in intelligent and innovative ways into two of the best films of this past year, which received no Golden Globes or Oscar nominations: Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West. The chaos the protagonists of these two films’ online routines inspire is beyond most viewers’ real life experiences, since they culminate in robbery, assault, and occult happenings. But both movies find a way to evoke modern routines in ways that feel painfully resonant. Additionally, they use them to explore thematic territory beyond what most films that integrate liberal amounts of screenshots attempt, exposing the aspirational nature of their characters’ (and “our”) online exploits, from the seemingly trivial to the more extreme or indecorous.
This is no small accomplishment–in the films of the last ten years or so, the most prevalent use of texting and social media has been in horror movies, kitschy thrillers, or other genre films. Horror directors have always looked for ways to play on fresh breeds of fear, and explored creative methods of connecting slashers and demons with their inevitable victims. In the 21st century, our anxieties about hackers, viruses, and catfishing are easy targets. One of the most drastic recent examples of chat-sploitation in genre film was 2014’s Unfriended, a D-budget found-footage terrordome which takes place almost entirely within a Skype window. Any idiot can turn on two-or-three-party verification for your accounts, but that won’t help you when a literal witch is keeping a snuff film up on your Facebook wall (see also: this year’s slightly more baroque, Creepypasta-adjacent flick Friend Request).
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why film beyond the ranks of creative genre movies–this includes comedies, like this year’s excellent Girls Trip–hasn’t integrated images of present-day banal technological habits more meaningfully. But as the conversation sparked by “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s recent viral short story in The New Yorker, illustrated, creating a narrative through heavy integration of texts and social media correspondence can also lend a kind of perceived realism that feels anti-fictional (never mind that many of the first popular novels were epistolary). One of Roupenian’s story’s greatest provocations is its dramatic twist, which comes in a final one-way text conversation. To many, the technique helped make “Cat Person” feel authentic and apropos. To others, it assisted in creating the false impression that the piece was autobiography. Another subset of readers dismissed the texts, along with some of Roupenian’s other storytelling apparatuses, as cheap devices. But, as Roupenian matter-of-factly put it to the New York Times, “text messages are hard to work into stories because it’s not easy to build a scene around someone sitting alone and staring at a phone.”
Personal Shopper, also a narrative about a troubled millennial dominated by aggressive text chains, is definitely not “realistic,” or even emotionally accessible. It is also not a horror film, though, as in Friend Request, the drama in the film is heightened by technological communiques seemingly sent to its protagonist, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), by some omnipotent and supernatural force. Despite its spectral elements, though, Assayas’s film is probably less frightening than Ingrid Goes West, a Talented-Mr.-Ripley-like black comedy without a hint of supernaturality. There is no ghost in the machine, and its lead–orphaned suburban loner Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza)–Instagrams as much or more than she texts. Her social media regimen is portrayed, initially, as only slightly more delirious and extreme than many of our own. In bouts of fantasy induced by excessive scrolling, she imagines another possible life for herself, wrought in the image of influencer and branded content shill Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) and immediately seeks to realize it. It’s not patent reality for most of us, but Ingrid’s psychosis resonates with urges that surge up in our darkest moments.
To many among the film’s target demographic, watching Ingrid constantly and futilely refreshing her updates feels painfully familiar. The omnipresent Apple sound effects are maddening–exactly what many of us go to the movies to escape from. Usually, representations of social media and modern technology in prestige films and TV are mythologized: near-future-fied, separated by one or two degrees from typical, present-day experience. (Presently, we have plenty of new and on-the-nose Black Mirror episodes to corner that market.) But Ingrid poses no central “what if” question, and therefore no cushion. Her nightmare is the same as the average millennial’s, though it pushes her to outlandish extremes–“some Single White Female shit,” a character says in a bit of meta-commentary. The amount of realistic iPhone choreography feels like a weaponization of millennial-marketed tech commercials’ visual syntax, and it’s brutal.
In Personal Shopper, a similarly Pavlovian, Apple-driven nightmare is the powerful centerpiece of the film. In its most memorable and polarizing sequence, a busy work day for Maureen, mostly consisting of a round-trip train ride to London from Paris to buy designer clothes for her starlet boss Kyra, is interrupted by increasingly invasive iMessages from an unknown stalker. Assayas creates the drama largely through shots of Maureen’s phone screen. Familiar gray ellipses build tension between communications, and at one point, airplane mode serves a crucial, Hitchcockian dramatic purpose, unleashing a delayed series of predatory messages in a burst. The viewer sees every text message arrive in torturous real time, and watches Maureen move from curiosity, to confession, to metaphysical speculation, to something like flirtation in her responses. In her texts, she reveals more about herself than she ever has in her acted-out interactions in the film. Assayas’ work in this scene is a reminder that many people’s most serious private dramas are dictated by the specific capabilities of their devices and services.
The sequence demonstrates that, unlike Ingrid, Maureen doesn’t use technology to create a false image of herself, but the opposite: Her texts and search histories reveal things about her she doesn’t project on the surface. Stewart’s often expressionless, perpetually dissatisfied IRL demeanor helps creates this potent contrast. The real beginning of the film comes with Maureen descending into a YouTube hole, obsessively searching for documentaries about abstract artists who could communicate with spirits. She sketches her own imitations while watching, wondering if anything is flowing through her. Later, she watches a rip of an old TV movie about Victor Hugo communicating with spirits through a series of knocks. A few scenes later, a “ghost” she hopes is her brother communicates with her, luckily using the exact same language, which seems just a bit too convenient. “Lewis, is it you or is it just me?” she calls out. Don’t believe everything you see on YouTube, folks.
In Shopper, Maureen’s tech activity spurs on and mediates the drama, and helps throw her detachment and loneliness into relief. But in Ingrid, Plaza’s character’s virtual delusions are much more than plot devices: They are central to the film’s governing metaphor, embodying the larger myth of Western progress in America playfully alluded to in the movie’s title. At first, Ingrid glimpses the promise of California in a beach photo on a classroom motivational poster in the psych ward, likened to an Instagram image through the camerawork. What seems to capture Ingrid’s fancy is not just the prospect of being somewhere with warm weather, but the image it would project if she was there–the status it would connote. Once Ingrid becomes an Angeleno, with the help of an inheritance from her dead mother, she scrambles quickly to embody an image of hipster California chic. She snaps herself eating at farm-to-table vegetarian brunch spots, and then spits up the food in disgust. She chokes down de rigueur Chardonnays, and buys shitty pop art after barely glancing at it–a grotesque send-up of the typical, ambitious young transplant to the big city.
In some of her first posts, Ingrid poses with books by Joan Didion, a author famous for creating not only a general image of modern life in L.A., but for projecting a particular image of being a hip citizen of it. The cynical Didion reference immediately brings another prominent film from 2017 to mind. Greta Gerwig’s nostalgic dramedy Lady Bird opens with a Didion epigram, and its plot is essentially a 21st-century paraphrase of Didion’s own adolescence in Sacramento. The similarities extend to the father figure (in this year’s Didion Netflix doc The Circle Will Not Hold, the writer describes her father as having “a sadness so pervasive”) as well as to “Lady Bird”’s fixation on taking Manhattan. Ingrid, naturally, culminates with Plaza’s character being forced to wipe her ass with pages from Didion’s 1979 book of essays The White Album in the absence of toilet paper. She’s already Instagrammed herself reading it, so why not? The scene illuminates the ways in which Ingrid Goes West is a kind of anti-Lady Bird. Spicer’s film is fiercely cynical about the entire notion of a young American woman moving out of modest circumstances to reinvent herself in a romanticized metropolis. Gerwig’s, on the other hand, is full of playful optimism about it: We are meant to buy into the idea that our hardest days make us stronger, instead of getting us cast out of Eden or institutionalized, and that our dreams are within reach.
Despite the two films’ fairly opposite perspectives on the American Dream, Ingrid eventually reveals itself, like Lady Bird, to be a movie about class. In Spicer’s film, the false promise of Instagram (and all social media, and perhaps the Internet) is that it creates a new, more level playing field that is separate from that of the non-avatared world. Theoretically, one should be able to, through appropriate branding, rise through the ranks and connect to anyone–pull one’s self up by the bootstraps, as it were. But ultimately, as Ingrid moves her Instagram campaign for Taylor’s approval into the real world, class forms a barrier Ingrid cannot penetrate. Where you come from still matters as much as who you know and what you post. Taylor and her frat-boy terror of a brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) buy chintzy real estate (Taylor: “like my Instagram but in real life”), house-sit for millionaires, and fly across the world on a whim. In Nicky’s view, Ingrid’s $60k inheritance, which she blows through as if she was eating a piece of avocado toast at the top of every half-hour each day, is money that is not really hers in that deeper, born-with-it sense. Thus, he can steal it with impunity.
Ultimately, Ingrid–beholden to Taylor and Nicky’s every whim, willing to jeopardize anything to infiltrate Taylor’s social circle—is really not that much better off than the poor mechanic Taylor persuades to take posed Instagram photos of her while he rolls around in sand and dirt. In her effort to infiltrate Taylor’s squad, Ingrid constantly betrays the only person in the film who seems to be truly on her side. O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character Dan Pinto (no accident with that last name) is Ingrid’s landlord and hapless love interest–a struggling screenwriter of modest means, with an honest appreciation for Ingrid’s eccentricity and a seemingly endless penchant for forgiveness. For Ingrid, Dan clearly reminds her too much of herself. He, like her, is a wannabe who flocked to L.A. to try his luck in one of its gold-rush industries. Ingrid organizes her life around being an online personality, chasing any real-life experience that might signify good taste on her platforms. Dan, who tends to talk in Batman metaphors, organizes his around table reads of his superhero scripts (“good additions to the franchise,” he hopes).
The primary difference between Ingrid and Maureen in Personal Shopper is that Stewart’s character does not explicitly use technology as a method of social climbing, and definitely not to create a false image of herself. As Stewart’s character confesses at one point, she longs to detach herself from a Western, bougie lifestyle–at least, as it is represented by her exploitative and Sisyphean job. Her online investigations into the existence of the afterlife are crammed in between seemingly endless trips to functionally identical boutique stores. As Kyra’s personal shopper, Maureen is paid to stand in for and even directly impersonate her boss. But Maureen is almost entirely unable to communicate or be acknowledged by Kyra face-to-face; she is a second-class citizen, her personal time and private life apparently totally unvalued.
But as the film goes on, Maureen’s obsession with her nearly-faceless employer’s life—Stewart’s character’s furtive desire to wear her boss Kyra’s clothes, lounge around her apartment, and sleep in her bed—begins to feel aspirational as well as rebellious. It’s another way of exploring the great unknown for the restless, perpetually dissatisfied Maureen. Just as Ingrid yearns to become a Taylor surrogate, Maureen’s desire to inhabit her rich boss’ private world is crucial to the arc of the film, inspiring her to follow the aggressively dominant directives of her shadowy text buddy. “No desire if it’s not forbidden,” she types to him, elucidating one of her central motivations to the audience for the first time. Eventually, the grim fate Kyra meets seems to be something Maureen has almost manifested herself, in an attempt to realize her own latent desires.
Personal Shopper is unnerving and mystical; Ingrid is pulpy, funny, and unabashedly pessimistic. But both movies show characters constructing their public and private selves in an aggressively contemporary world. Ultimately, the two become dangerously elided in ways that feel both allegorical and oddly true to life. They both offer a loose rewrite of the over-cited Didion title Ingrid uses to caption one of her first photos in Los Angeles: “We follow other people’s stories in order to live.” How can our personal devices and social media accounts, which are such a dominant and inextricable part of our daily experience and self-representation, be cinematic fodder? How will filmmakers–and indeed, artists of all sorts–tell more complicated and subtle stories involving them in years to come? Ingrid Goes West and Personal Shopper explore some possible inroads, exploiting our arbitrary, often masochistic virtual routines without turning into speculative fiction.