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Personal Shopper – A Ghost Story for the Digital Era

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a brilliant, hypnotic film – a ghost story for the modern era.

Pictured above are actress Kristen Stewart, and writer/director Oliver Assayas, who first teamed several years ago for Clouds of Sils Maria, another enigmatic, haunting film. Here, Stewart plays Maureen, who is – as the title plainly states – a personal shopper living in Paris whose interests lean more towards art history and personal discovery than the quotidian nature of her daily grind, as she zips from one high-end emporium after another, picking up jewels, designer clothing, and accessories for her demanding boss – Kyra, a high fashion model (Nora von Waldstätten), whom she almost never sees.

When Kyra wants something, she phones or texts, and Maureen runs and fetches, with little thanks and much haggling over her fee, leaving the items in Kyra’s apartment. But that’s just one strand of the film; all the while that she pursues these meaningless errands, Maureen is haunted (literally) by the death of her twin brother Lewis, a medium who made a pact with Maureen that he would reach out after death to make contact with her. Both Maureen and Lewis have congenital heart defects; in Lewis’ case, his heart gave out in his early 20s, and Maureen knows that her heart, too, could stop rupture at any moment, causing instant death.

In the cold, brutal world of the film, there’s no such thing as friendship, and even love is often deeply suspect, inasmuch as all the characters with the exception of Maureen are engaged in a deeply commercial, throwaway life style, in which dazzle counts for more than substance – as if they had any substance to begin with. In the film’s first third, Maureen alternates with nightly visits to Lewis’ now vacant house, in the hope that his spirit will manifest itself, intercut with endless trips on her motorbike on this or that errand for Kyra.

To say more would be to give the game away; let’s just say that as real and empty as the world of high fashion is in the film, so too is the supernatural domain, which is rendered in some eerily spectral special effects reminiscent of the unearthly inhabitants of a similarly dilapidated house in Lewis Allen’s classic ghost story The Uninvited (1944). As with Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is a revelation, and while she seems to nicely balance her career between mainstream films and even music videos for the Rolling Stones’ latest album, I certainly prefer her work here, given a role she can absolutely inhabit, in a performance which keeps her on screen for nearly every scene in the film.

Personal Shopper was actually shot in 2015; premiered at Cannes in May, 2016, where Assayas won Best Director for his work on the film, and is just now bring released in the United States on the art house circuit. In world in which everyone seems fixated on the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, a thoughtful, suspenseful, and intelligent film is something of a rarity – more’s the pity – and fans who know Stewart from her work in the Twilight series and other commercial work will probably be disappointed in the film, which builds slowly and carefully to a superbly executed climax.

Much has been made of the fact that the film was “booed” by some audience members at its first Cannes screening, and this has inaccurately been reported as the sole audience reception at Cannes. Not so: as Chris Gardner wrote in The Hollywood Reporter right after the official Cannes premiere, “Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, received a four-and-a-half-minute standing ovation Tuesday night at the psychological thriller’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Following the screening, a happy Stewart, who changed into sneakers after walking the red carpet in heels and a Chanel dress, was seen hugging her co-stars and the film’s director, Olivier Assayas, while the crowd applauded.

The Paris-set ghost story triggered both boos and applause when it first screened for critics on Monday. In the film, Stewart plays a young American in Paris who half-believes she’s in contact with her late twin brother. While discussing the Cannes competition entry during the festival, Stewart said: ‘It’s a ghost story, sure, but the supernatural aspects of it just lead you to very basic questions.’ As for the boos, Assayas, who also directed Stewart in 2014 Cannes competition entry Clouds of Sils Maria, said ahead of Tuesday night’s premiere, ‘It happens to me once in a while, where people just don’t get the ending.’ He added, ‘When you come to Cannes, you have to be prepared for everything.'”

And that includes people who want everything spelled out for them. If you want something that’s easily digestible, by all means head out to see The Fate of the Furious. But if you’d like something more thoughtful, and more elegantly constructed, with multiple layers of meaning and significance to peel back, please go go to the nearest art house and see this film. It’s a tonic in an age of empty glitter and flash; a human story set in an inhuman age, where machines – a prominent feature in the film is the endless array of digital gadgetry Maureen has to contend with everyday to get her work done – are the ultimate arbiters of our destiny.

Click here to see the trailer for this astonishing film.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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