Personal Shopper – Olivier Assayas (2017)

The living often make use of the dead for their own purposes, but do the dead ever return the favor? What would it mean if they did? Such questions lie at the heart of Olivier Assayas’s new film Personal Shopper, which stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright, a young woman living in Paris, working at the titular job, which she claims to hate, as a means of supporting herself while she pursues her true calling as a spiritual medium. This slightly silly-seeming turn, which is not unexpected, given the interest Assayas has expressed across multiple films in the power of the occult (in all senses of the word), is explained through plotting as being the result of newly cemented grief. Maureen lost her twin brother Lewis unexpectedly three months prior to our entry into her world, his passing a result of a heart condition which they both share (but which their doctor reassures Maureen should not deliver her to the same fate). Apparently both twins have the gift of extra sensory perception (although the film suggests that perhaps Lewis simply convinced both of them that this was the case) and earlier in their lives the twins agreed that whoever passed into the unknown first would try to contact the other in some material way. As the film begins, Maureen is trying to suss out if Lewis is haunting his old house, both as a means of seeking his company and as a reassurance to the couple who want to purchase it. She has several weird and inexplicable encounters in the building, but although one such includes a female apparition vomiting up ectoplasm, none rises to the level of what Maureen would consider definitive proof of after-life.

Maureen does start to give Lewis’s persistence on this plane of existence more credence once it seems like he might be texting her. This is where the movie turns away from what seems to be a psychological mood piece rooted in the supernatural and begins to resemble a more conventional psychological thriller. The thriller aspect arrives via Maureen’s day job; she is the personal shopper for one Kyra (last name forgotten no thanks to IMDB, but portrayed by Nora von Waldstatten), a high powered individual of uncertain profession, who we, and Maureen, rarely encounter in the flesh as the film unfolds. Maureen picks up clothes for Kyra, sometimes illicitly trying them on first (they are a similar size, but apparently the practice infuriates Kyra), and then delivers them back and forth, depending on Kyra’s whim. She acts a little like a personal assistant, and so has full access to Kyra’s residence. On an early delivery, Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a similarly jet setting lover of Kyra’s, who is about to get his walking papers – he is waiting around while Kyra is on an interminable phone call with her lawyer to, one supposes, beg for a second chance between the sheets. During their encounter, Maureen opens up to Ingo, and tells him that she dislikes her job, although refusing a better paying one he offers up (she tells him that even though it is more creative, she sees more “freedom” in her current, “stupid” job). Further, she confides that her brother has recently died, and that she is staying in Paris to try to contact him. Soon she is getting text messages from an unknown number which are coy in their provenance and hint, in both the rapidity of delivery and in the metaphysical nature of their demands, that they could be from her dead twin. (Of course, they could be from Ingo, who we think might be trying to seduce her or perhaps gaslight her for some as yet unknown purpose). As the texting becomes more intense and intimate, Maureen slips further down the rabbit’s hole of her own fears and desires, and the stakes become higher, both within this material plane and on the metaphysical one. Soon we don’t know if Maureen is losing her mind, unraveling a plot, making a breakthrough to the other side, or all of the above.

Assayas likes to blend genres, and this is no exception. Sometimes, as in Demonlover, the blending succeeds and creates a heady, uncanny experience – we feel we are watching something with little precedent and revel in the audacity. At other times, as in Boarding Gate, we don’t understand what he is trying to accomplish, and the generic elements of the blend fail to gel and instead grind against each other (with tedium being the result). Personal Shopper falls somewhere in between. We can see the plot points of the thriller coming a mile away, but that is beside the point, as the thriller is really just a mirror within which Maureen’s interior voyage is reflected – it allows her to answer the questions she has about her brother (or at least ask them fully) while providing a plausible real-world explanation that undermines her quest. By marrying the mundane with the possibly supernatural, Assayas creates for the viewer the same uncertainty that Maureen experiences – we are fully with her in her own confusion and in the ambivalence she feels towards believing that the “answers” are telling her what she wants to know. On the supernatural side of things, there are some genuinely chilling moments (especially later in the film) and, at the same time, some slightly stupid ones (as in the overwrought CGI ghost early on). Everything makes sense, and has aesthetic merit, in that what we are seeing might all be a projection of Maureen’s mind, and the movie really is about the difficulty of knowing who one is, and if one can trust their own feelings and perceptions to reveal TRUTH, or merely “truth.” For this viewer, however, the overall shape of the film still feels a bit like paint-by-numbers art film. There is the questioning of the coherent self, ruminations on the nature of identity, freedom, and the possibility of real knowledge. There is a doubling of women accompanied by the projection of desire, there is ambiguity and a refusal to give any firm answers, despite much accumulation of “proof.” Everything shifts and could be a reflection of “reality,” or just a reflection of the protagonist’s desires (well, more than that, a working through of issues and the prospect of some kind of interior synthesis). We have seen it all before; indeed, I at first assumed that this film was a continuation of Assayas’s prior Clouds of Sils Maria, as Kristen Stewart in that film portrayed a personal assistant who, if I remember correctly, speaks of having a twin brother. While I suppose it is still possible that this film is set prior to the other, it does seem that Personal Shopper is a reflection rather than a continuation of that earlier (and far better) film. Part of my deep interest in seeing Personal Shopper was in seeing how Assayas and Stewart would work together one-on-one, and how the themes of the prior film might expand. Sadly, they do not. While Personal Shopper has many affecting moments, the emotional core of the film cannot deliver, and I must sadly report that this is due to Kristen Stewart’s performance. She simply can’t reach the intensity of sadness coupled with fear (mostly the fear of self-discovery) that the role demands. She excels at portraying a kind of interior anomie, the blank alienation of the world-weary or the self-imposed exile (which makes her a natural match for a director like Assayas, who is interested in “cool” but also in what lies beneath such surfaces). But she just can’t deliver the intensity required when the facade cracks. In every scene where she is asked to cry, it looks forced and faked – Stewart will rub her eyes, and sniffle, and hide her face with her jacket or her hands. Of course defenders might say that such mannerisms are based in her character, but compared to an actress like Isabelle Huppert, who can build the pressure of pain behind the facade and then deliver the devastation of the facade crumbling, Stewart appears out of her depth. (Of course Huppert has 40 years of experience on Stewart, so I understand the comparison is unfair). While Stewart is a very talented actress, this role made me reconsider Clouds of Sils Maria, and how impressed I was with her performance in that film. It made me realize that so much of what made the prior film powerful was the interplay between the women (and it made me reconsider how much weight and impact the presence of Juliette Binoche lent to all the performances in the film). Personal Shopper focuses on one character, and the interiority of that character is all – so the emotional power of the film rests squarely on Stewart’s shoulders. She doesn’t fail, and neither does the film, but her limits as an actress are also the film’s limits. It ends as it begins: a thriller with some genuine chills, but without the transcendence necessary to make it more than an admittedly interesting genre mash-up.

Saint Laurent – Bertrand Bonello (2015)

I have not so much to say about Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. It is nominally a biopic about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent; I say nominally, because Bonello eschews most of the trappings of the biographical film. There is little in the way of exposition or explanation – we are thrown into YSL’s life in 1967, and jump around, chronologically, through the year 1976 (with a few detours to 1989). There is generally little dialogue. What we learn, we learn through observation. So, this should be a slam-dunk for me, right? I generally despise biopics, and this one works against the conventions of the genre I most dislike. Call me agnostic. I found the film interesting without connecting to it much emotionally. Like its subject, Saint Laurent attempts to convey something substantial through the accumulation of surfaces; like the human form in fashion, the person at the center of this film emerges as the negative space to which substances cling, the bones around which an edifice is built, an edifice that both transforms the subject as well as obscures his “reality.”

The film begins with a confession, as YSL (Gaspard Ulliel) gives a phone interview in which he reveals some of the sordid, and potentially formative, experiences of his childhood (like much in the film, this sequence returns later to play out in full). This, along with a few flashbacks later in the film, is all that we have of YSL to “explain” him. Rather, the film focuses in on the years 1967 and 1976 because they are the years of his major collections, with the interim being the height of YSL’s influence and originality. Not that we, the audience, would know, except that the periphery of YSL’s existence makes us dimly aware of how the outside world is responding to him. There is little to none of the expected “outside” viewpoints on his work, no dramatic catwalk montages with the press and/or celebrities giving us a hint as to what is original or exciting in his work and/or why. Most of what we understand about YSL’s relationship to the outside world comes through his partner, Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier). Instead, we stick with YSL almost exclusively throughout the film. In the beginning, we see him at work in the atelier, a kind of back-office god who calls forth outfits, touches them, and then sends them back, while we mostly stay with the workers, going about their tasks wordlessly (this part of the film is quite fascinating). As time goes on, and YSL rises, he spends less and less time in the office, and more and more time doing drugs, having sex, and going out and about. Yes, be prepared to admire manifold people “looking cool” in this film, as this activity (I can’t even call it cruising), mostly perpetrated in nightclubs, provides a good deal of the meat of YSL’s existence. It is while clubbing that YSL meets his muses and inspirations, Loulou and Betty (Léa Seydoux and Aymeline Valade, respectively), as well as one of his lifelong loves and figures of fascination, the libertine Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). We begin to get the general sense that YSL is sliding into non-productivity and addiction, but then he returns in force with the 1976 “Ballet Russes” collection. There are a few flash-forwards to 1989, with an elderly YSL, played by Helmut Berger, isolated, seemingly doddering, trapped in memories and surrounded by the (now empty) surface features of fame and style. However, the film does not propose a reading of YSL’s life, and so we don’t get a theory or summation of what his body of work “meant.” In fact, if the film has a thesis, it would be exactly that – YSL was tormented during his lifetime over what his work meant, and grew to view fashion as transitory (and potentially empty). He is portrayed as resenting the work’s inclusion in museums, which marks it as passe, but also transforms his home into a virtual museum, and speaks of painting with admiration, as it is a form that “lasts.” So, the film presents the artist as he who is left bereft by his art, trying to accomplish something, the gist of which largely eludes him. The film ends with false reports of YSL’s demise in the ’70s (as he was given to periods of elusiveness) – a team of glib and insipid reporters (lead by director Bonello) finally track him down, at work in his atelier, and we conclude with YSL simply smiling at reports of his own demise.

What is Bonello up to in this film? The most interesting aspect of the production, probably, is the unlikely and undramatic rendition of the creative life it provides. As a portrait of the creative process, it is honest, in that portraying such things is very difficult, the process being mostly interior, and usually furtive, even to the artist. Bonello does not try to “get around” this difficulty, and this is why long sections of the film are a bit dull (at least in terms of the narrative, if not visually). We do begin to understand the creative process with the inclusion of other people – for instance, the most fascinating part of the film (and one of the briefest) is watching a room of professionals grapple with how to transform what are basically sketches with some colored ink on them into fully realized commodities that a person will not only successfully wear, but covet. The majority of the film, however, deals with YSL off the job, in the realm of “inspiration,” one supposes. And I must congratulate Bonello, as the more YSL slides into drugs and booze, the more we too, as viewers, begin to feel the effects. Time slows down, dilates, and drags, but not in the stereotypical ways. One great, and emblematic, shot, in which de Bascher and YSL see, and cruise each other, for the first time, feels like it takes place underneath an opium-laced pillow. The camera slowly tracks from de Bascher’s side of the club, across the dance floor, dense with slowly thrashing bodies and replete with mirrored surfaces, until it finally reaches YSL’s side, and his returned glance, and then the camera slowly tracks back to de Bascher again. We fully feel the “heroic” aspect of this movement, as a great struggle against torpor and drugginess – desire in this situation being that which can keep its purpose in mind long enough to arrive, against such inertia, at its original destination. The film has many such shots, and the chronology keeps us interested, if only by mixing things up. All the same, sequences are difficult to determine. Is there a method to Bonello’s montage? The film has an orchestral feel, in that one remembers glitzy parts, and slow parts, ups, and downs, but only in a gestalt. From moment to moment, we begin to wonder “why are we here?” (And this amplifies the feeling of being drugged). There are bravura moments. At one point, Bonello splits the screen, one half showing newsreel footage from the eras of YSL’s collections, the other side presenting, one at a time, emblems of those collections on models who continually descend a spiral stair. The shot hints at didacticism without being didactic, as there are no pat points of confluence; what could have been a cheesy or lame device turns out to be quite compelling (partly because Bonello lets it run for a good while). The flash-forward to YSL in his old age, which occurs during the Ballet Russes section, is also very well done. At first, it is structured to make us feel that YSL is remembering back to this triumph, his last great contribution (his moment of timelessness, and hence art). However, we are soon back in 1976, and we discover the flash-back was actually a flash-forward; it is as if the YSL of 1976 intuits where he will wind up, how “other” he will be compared to this contemporary self, how old and strange he will one day be. It feels very similar to the sequence in 2001 in which Dave Bowman witnesses his aged self sequestered in an ornate and antique room, only to suddenly find himself occupying that room as subject, time bridged in the span of an eye’s blink. Thus we get one of many small chills up our spine. The film delivers more than a few of these, but almost always in retrospect. (Another is a sequence in which we accompany Jacques de Bascher as he awaits his death from AIDS – he is alone, in an almost white room, smiling ruefully, afflicted, and sewing an eye back onto his teddy bear, which will be buried with him). So while the film is strangely affecting, and intriguing, it is more so in hindsight; during the film, things feel unresolved and somewhat empty. Bonello is a director who has no problem being provocative – his first film, The Pornographer, features unsimulated sex in the tale of a former porn director (disturbingly played, too convincingly, by a raggedy Jean-Pierre Léaud) trying to get back into the game and rediscover his “inspiration.” What carries over from one film to the other is an unironic style and an interest in the convergence of the everyday and its exception, the obscene. Saint Laurent asks, without asking, if art that is not timeless can exist, as it tries to portray what a life dedicated, at the highest level, to ephemera as art and the different repetitions of style required for such an endless renewal, looks and feels like. Living through it might be a nightmare, or an opium dream, but by the time one has enough distance to gain clarity and reflect – does anyone remember what we were talking about?

Three stars out of five

The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five

Clouds of Sils Maria – Olivier Assayas (2014)

Olivier Assayas’s work is often uneven. He has directed some brilliant films (1994’s Cold Water, 2000’s Les Destinées, and Demonlover in 2002), some that are a mixed lot (such as his best-known, 1996’s Irma Vep), and a few absolute duds (2007’s Boarding Gate, for example). And then there is Carlos – the less we speak of Carlos, the better, but suffice to say that any film that spends a third of its six hour running time with a protagonist hiding out and complaining of varicose testes… One tendency in Assayas work that some perhaps find alienating or off-putting is his foregrounding of the problems of the glamorous, powerful, and well-to-do in a fairly non-ironic way. Irma Vep was about a director losing his way directing a famous actress, Demonlover concerned power plays by sexy movers and shakers within international corporations, and Carlos was Assayas at his international jet-setting worst, a work that signified “cool” at every juncture while being deeply boring, self-satisfied and self-indulgent.

Given that his best films tend to hew away from the surface sheen of money, fame, power, and what we could generally term the “eye-candy” of international capital, I was a bit hesitant on the approach to Clouds of Sils Maria. (The rush to judgement in certain online forums, where users were vehement about wishing the early demise of such “annoying” characters, didn’t help my hopefulness). The film concerns an older actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her hesitation to take on a role in a play about power dynamics between two women, one older and one younger, where the younger seduces and destroys the older. She originally played the younger role, to much acclaim, twenty years prior, and now is offered the role of the older (to be destroyed) woman, against a current Hollywood ingenue (played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Along for the ride as a helper and confidant is her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.

The film becomes a kind of mental triangle among the women, with Binoche and Stewart mostly bonding, sometimes sparring, as Stewart helps convince Binoche to take the role and coaches her through dialogue preparation. A subtle transference begins to occur, and the dynamics of the play (titled Maloja Snake, after the rarely seen movement of clouds through a mountain valley) start influencing the women’s relationship. Binoche struggles with the meaning and personal ramifications of playing an older, “debased” role (when she is still somewhat resting on her laurels from her younger performance), while Moretz shape-shifts and personifies the “emptiness of today’s youth” that every older generation feels in some measure about its younger competition. Kristen Stewart is stuck in the middle, not only as the go-between for Binoche and the world, but as a woman who can see what getting older has in store for her, and is sympathetic to the prospect and compassionate in her analysis, but who also isn’t there yet and doesn’t want to be.

If this sounds like problems for the elite, well, on one level it certainly is. At the same time, I did not find the characters annoying or their problems uninteresting, as the writing is exceptionally good and the layers manifold. The film deals with multiple issues very subtly: the difference between “performance” and “authentic” self, the nature of acting and popularity, how women relate to each other, all of which is filtered through the larger dynamic of aging and what it means to get older and to feel you are still in step (or not) with your time. It is a drama without pyrotechnics, but it lingers, and the performances are incredibly strong – particularly Kristen Stewart, who I didn’t expect much from but who knocked me out. The film is up there with Bergman’s reflections on the performing life, but Assayas brings an appreciation and critique of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of the post-modern capitalist phantasmagoria. And in terms of a film that tries to observe, and not polemicize, what it means to be a woman and an image, and that seriously considers how women are or are not allowed to age and still remain socially relevant, this is the finest recent film I can think of. For Assayas fans, it’s his strongest film since Demonlover, and worth returning to.

Four and a half stars out of five

Goodbye to Language – Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

I’d recommend Goodbye to Language even if it were horrible, simply because it is Godard in 3D. It is not horrible, however, and resides aesthetically somewhere at the middle point between Godard’s relatively more “normal” late narratives and his video work a la JLG/JLG and Histoire du Cinema. His use of 3-D is easily the most interesting I’ve seen (in a “mainstream” release), and the film is quite funny too. Spoiler alert: the juicy fart Foley work in this rivals the Wet Hot American Summer DVD for over-the-topness.

Four stars out of five