There are fascinating strands of grief, regret, and loneliness connecting Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, all of which premiered at Cannes in the main competition over the past several days, to a full range of responses. Assayas’s film, a pseudo-thriller starring Kristen Stewart as a part-time medium and personal shopper for a French celebrity, probably made the most news — its first press screening was met with a small chorus of boos, something that has been known to happen at Cannes, sometimes to the best of movies. (The gala screening — the official premiere — reportedly went much better.)
Booing movies, especially at a place like Cannes, is an activity fit for toads. That said, I wish Personal Shopper were better. It’s certainly interesting to see Assayas tackle genre in his own way, with his sneakily loose camerawork and unsettling storytelling rhythms; this is the kind of film that will fade out in the middle of a dialogue scene, or during a suspense sequence, or even a shot of Stewart masturbating in bed. Is the director trying to confound us? Did he run out of story? Or is Personal Shopper directed by a ghost passing across scenes and dimensions?
To call this a ghost story wouldn’t be quite right, though the film does have ghosts, things that go bump in the night, and big haunted houses. Stewart’s character, Maureen, is trying to connect with the spirit of her twin brother, who died from a heart defect that she shares. Meanwhile, she suffers from the grind of a job picking clothes and shoes and jewelry for a temperamental actress and model. Somewhere along the way, Maureen makes contact with a presence; it latches onto her and texts her creepy, stalkery messages like “I want you and I will have you” while asking her to name her fears and making her put on her famous boss’s clothes. Could it be the undead spirit of Zalman King?
Despite the Skinemax-level plot elements and occasional bits of breathtakingly stupid dialogue, Personal Shopper actually feels like Assayas’s version of a David Lynch film, complete with that ever-so-Lynchian theme of the transference of self. But where the director of Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet immerses, Assayas distances; he doesn’t share Lynch’s fondness for texture, or hothouse surrealism, or melodrama. Assayas’s characters live in a world closer to our own, even if it’s slightly tilted on its axis; they are unemotional in their affect and constantly in motion.
That can result in its own kind of mysterious beauty (as in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s last collaboration with his young megastar), but Personal Shopper descends into fragmentation and alienation, and not always rewardingly. It also doesn’t help that Stewart’s fidgety, mechanical performance indulges some of her worst acting tics. Her constant restlessness may fit the character, but I was never convinced it was Maureen up there; it too often feels like Kristen Stewart having been told to act nervous. Still, you have to admire the actress for taking on a role that requires her to be at the center of pretty much every shot, often by herself, and often doing ridiculous things. It’s a brave performance, just not a very good one. Something similar could be said for the film.
Almodóvar’s Julieta also has an open relationship with genre. The occasional sequences of mild supernatural suspense in Assayas’s Personal Shopper reflect the protagonist’s fear of both moving on and looking back, a queasy stasis born of her inability to let go. In Almodóvar’s film, Alberto Iglesias’s score surges with noirish menace while the story itself — filled with sudden disappearances, betrayal, clues from the past — keeps threatening to turn into a crime thriller. (Almodóvar probably understands better than any other filmmaker the intersection of classic film noir and the so-called women’s picture.) The brooding suspense of Julieta reflects the protagonist’s sense of inchoate guilt: She always suspects that she’s done something wrong, but she’s never quite sure what.
Based on a trio of Alice Munro short stories, Almodóvar’s film follows the title character, who discovers that her long-lost daughter may have resurfaced and delves back into her own painful past in order to understand what broke them apart. When we first see the middle-aged Julieta, played by Emma Suárez, she’s dressed head to toe in bright red, and in Almodóvar’s impeccably designed, color-coordinated world, that means something. When we first see her younger self, played by Adriana Ugarte, she’s decked out all in bright blue, and the film is a steady cataloging of how blue became red, of the ways in which the one woman transformed into the other and learned to accept the hurt of the world. (The striking switch from the younger to the older actress actually comes right in the middle of a scene, and it’s beautifully, heartbreakingly well-done.)
Guilt seems to run Julieta’s life, and it infects those around her as well. These women absorb guilt and responsibility for the men around them, often unfairly; they judge themselves for the corrosive, sometimes fatal decisions their men — husbands, fathers, boyfriends — wind up making. But like many Almodóvar films, the story bends toward unity and common ground. His women find strength in one another — as opposed to Assayas’s women, who usually serve as each other’s rivals or functionaries and are almost always alone.
The Cannes programmers evidently pay attention to thematic unity and progression over the course of the fest. That may explain why these films were followed up by Brazilian director Mendonça’s Aquarius, whose highlight is a career-defining performance by the great Sônia Braga. She plays a seventy-year-old woman who refuses to sell the apartment she’s lived in for decades to the big-time developer who wants to tear the building down. A retired music journalist, Clara is the sole remaining tenant in the aging structure, as she wages a war of attrition with her corporate nemesis; they try first to coax her out with money, and then to drive her out by letting the place go to shit (literally, at one point).
Mendonça understands the meaning that we sometimes invest in places and objects, especially as we grow older. His film emerged, he says, from wanting to make a movie about archives — a potentially dry idea, but he’s conjoined it with a deep sense of humanity, and intimacy. This is a film in which an old woman will look at a nondescript wooden cabinet and remember the hot, hot sex she had atop it as a twentysomething. The quiet presentation of an old book can lead to an intense surge of feeling. Clara’s collection of LPs is a constant focus of attention — for visiting music journalists, for her kids, even for a gigolo she hires one night. And in there, among the well-played records, are some real finds — objects that have become special because of the memories attached to them, because of the way the warm hiss and the occasional scratches on the vinyl speak to the accumulation of memory and experience. (At times, Aquarius is another “smuggler’s musical” — filled with scenes of Clara at home playing her records, sometimes singing, sometimes dancing.) And at the center of this emotional maelstrom is the 65-year-old Braga, herself a living legend and bridge to the past. In a long film of many turns, her performance — weathered, proud, sensuous, fragile — captivates and brings us into her world.
There are some films here about men as well. One of the more pleasant surprises has been David Mackenzie’s enormously entertaining old-fashioned neo-western (can there be such a thing?) Hell or High Water, playing in Un Certain Regard. It stars Ben Foster and Chris Pine as two brothers holding up a series of banks in West Texas in an effort to raise the money to keep their dead mother’s farm from being foreclosed on by a corrupt lender. Pursuing them are grizzled, soon-to-be-retired ranger Jeff Bridges and his Indian-Mexican-American partner Gil Birmingham, whose non-p.c. back-and-forth and constant piss-taking betrays a genuine sense of loyalty and professionalism. That setup doesn’t sound like much, and in truth, the story is a very familiar one. But Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan’s script — filled with quotable zingers, telling character details, and topical anger — comes to vivid, exciting life with that cast, in particular Bridges, who seems to have finally found another gruff, down-home type worthy of his talents. Is there some cognitive dissonance to seeing a movie on the Croisette about modern-day variations on Rooster Cogburn and the James Brothers, who shoot and speed their way through West Texas? Perhaps. But it’s also one these characters would have relished.
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