Personal Shopper


Personal Shopper 2

**** (out of five)

Kristen Stewart is now Olivier Assayas’ muse, and he is now her most important director. They collaborated for the first time on 2014’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria; Stewart took home the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the personal assistant to a film star played by Juliette Binoche. Now Stewart plays the assistant to another powerful and celebrated European celebrity – not entirely defined, but either a model or a bigwig in fashion – but very much takes the leading role in Personal Shopper. She’s in every scene, and the movie is all about her. It’s her finest performance to date and the film is the equal of Clouds, and up there with Assayas’ best work.

The movie is great value, because it’s at least three films in one: ghost story, American-in-Paris workplace drama and vaguely “Hitchcockian” thriller. We first meet Stewart’s character Maureen (such an intriguing, old-fashioned name for someone so young and hip; Stewart wears it beautifully, and a touch ironically) as she spends the night in a secluded house in order to see if it’s haunted. This scene, played straight – and with a ghost! – seems almost shockingly, literally “genre”; is Assayas really going there? The short answer is, he is, but he’s going other places too, and the movie keeps shifting gears with highly-engineered precision. When Maureen leaves the haunted house and returns to her job, shopping for high-end clothes and jewellery for the aforementioned fashionista, the film slides securely back into territory we’re familiar with from Clouds, and Maureen could almost be Stewart’s character from that movie; it would make sense, to leave Binoche and find a new, younger and more distant boss to service, and, if Assayas had made this a sequel, I would have bought it.

PERSONAL SHOPPER 9945B (c) Carole Bethuel LIGHT

Halfway through, the third element – the thriller – enters the fray, and infects both the exotic workplace and the haunted house. The effect this shift has is electrifying, and the extended sequence on the Eurostar, where Maureen is stalked via text, will be deservedly admired and discussed for years to come. Stewart’s complicated emotional and psychological response to this series of events represents new levels of intimacy and vulnerability in her work, which some critics, in the past, have found cold and remote.

Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoot Stewart, Eurostar, Paris, Europe, everything magnificently. Nobody shoots daily contemporary urban life like Assayas, with its bustling beauty, havoc and disparity. You don’t necessarily notice the camerawork – it’s not like a Scorsese picture – but the moves and, in particular, the framings are quiet perfection.

I will be telling my filmmaking students to see this movie, not only for its general quality, but specifically to appreciate its approach to ambiguity. Easy answers to any of the film’s threads are not readily apparent by the end credits, yet the whole is immensely satisfying. It is a rich and hearty stew, nourishing for mind and soul.

Personal Shopper 1

Café Society



Café Society is arguably Woody Allen’s best-looking movie in colour. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and production design by Santo Loquasto depicting the mansions, offices, restaurants, bars and cars of 1930s Hollywood (and, to a lesser degree, an apartment in the Bronx and sundry other NYC locations) combine for a ravishing visual feast. If nothing else, you can just revel in Art Deco for ninety-seven minutes and have a good time.

Luckily, this time around there’s also a cohesive narrative (even if it feels like Woody’s done it many times before) and some zippy one-liners (even if they feel like they’ve been lifted wholesale from early Woody scripts). The script really does feel like it’s been cobbled togther by a computer program, but at least a computer program with access to the Woody archives: if nothing else, there’s no doubt this is a Woody Allen movie.

Jesse Eisenberg does a “7” on the 1 to 10 scale of how much Woody to do as the lead male in a Woody film, a refreshing step-down from the 9 he gave in To Rome With Love (2012). Like John Cusack and Larry David, he’s a good Woody substitute, and this time he doesn’t yammer and stammer. He plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man from the Bronx who’s sent to learn from his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a top of the game Hollywood agent. When he falls for Phil’s secretary, complications ensue.

Besides the terrific cinematography (even better than that of Midnight in Paris), the performances are a delight here. Eisenberg’s character actually gets an arc, gaining confidence and sexual chutzpah in a story that spans years, and Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart, as Uncle Phil and his secretary Vonnie, are both terrific. Carell gives the kind of multi-layered, complicated performance that people like Michael Caine were once able to give in Woody films, when the scripts supported them. And Stewart, often shot in close-up with 30s movie-star intensity, not only nails the material but also a huge and difficult character leap.

It may be Woody coasting on a textual level, but the fact that he’s gone out of his way to make such a technically assured movie is refreshing. I enjoyed my visit to his Café.

Still Alice


*** (out of five)

Julianne Moore is nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for Still Alice, from screenwriting and directing partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. She plays Alice Howland, an extremely intelligent, beautiful and successful linguistics professor, who, upon turning 50, becomes afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film is tasteful, controlled, quiet, almost stately; it’s beautifully shot in New York mainly in autumn and winter, features precise characters and perfect performances, particularly from Moore, who should and will get the Oscar. It is also a slog, hampered by two script-level fundamental flaws.

The first is that, playing its schematic early, the film becomes a sort of inevitable death march. Once Alice’s disease is discovered, we anticipate – not with pleasure – that the rest of the running time will essentially be a series of worse and worse symptoms on display, and that is precisely what we get. Although Moore performs each stage of Alice’s degradation exquisitely, it is not only an extremely depressing ride but a predictable one.

The other challenge is the film’s almost high-concept conceit: having Moore as a world authority on linguistics, and the disease gradually robbing her of words, is simply very, very contrived, and the concept is hammered to death. It’s too neat and it becomes grating.

Alice’s family are beautiful, smart and wonderful like her, and if they weren’t played by such excellent actors they would be insufferable. But Alec Baldwin, Kristin Stewart, Hunter Parrish (what a great actor’s name!) and particularly Kate Bosworth bring them all to life with precision. The Howlands are of a particular New York academic upper class, and they’ve got rigid spines, stiff upper lips and emotional resilience. This, at least, stops the movie from being mawkish – there are no scenes of anyone losing it, screaming, weeping uncontrollably or generally getting all tragic with it. But there is no denying that the film is depressing from the outset and never lightens up. While a fine showcase of a great screen actor’s talents, and an admirable depiction of an all-too-common disease, it is a grind, and one wonders if the filmmakers had an audience in mind.