A singular Kristen Stewart ghost story joins the booed-at-Cannes club

A singular Kristen Stewart ghost story joins the booed-at-Cannes club

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

Three years ago, a rep theater in New York ran a series called Booed At Cannes, which included such once-jeered, now-revered films as Carl Th. Dreyer’s Gertrud and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. (Reverence toward the latter is still arguably a minority view, but it’s a passionate minority.) In the same spirit, many of my friends who monitor the festival on Twitter get actively excited when they see reports of boos, because it’s a reliable sign that the recipient exhibited genuine daring. Trite, tedious movies never inspire that sort of vocal derision; it’s the crazy personal visions that get dissed.

I’d love to report that Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (Grade: B-), which set off a chorus of disapproval at its press screening last night, is a misunderstood masterpiece—or even that it’s as strong as Assayas’ hugely divisive techno-thriller Demonlover, which got booed here back in 2002 (my very first time at Cannes). But the best I can do is insist that it’s a must-see for anyone who wonders what it might look like if a cerebral French art-film director tried to make The Conjuring 3. Kristen Stewart gave the best performance of her career in Assayas’ last film, Clouds Of Sils Maria, playing a movie star’s personal assistant; here, she’s front and center as a similar gofer, Maureen, whose job involves selecting the wardrobe and generally running errands for a vacuous, unspecified celebrity (Nora Von Waldstätten). Before we see Maureen do any personal shopping, though, we see her spend a small eternity walking around a dark, spooky house, occasionally calling out “Lewis?” Lewis turns out to be Maureen’s recently deceased twin brother, and Personal Shopper, improbably, turns out to be a movie about a ghost hunter, albeit a very peculiar specimen of that genre. Assayas serves up a couple of genuinely frightening effects set pieces, but he also devotes a huge stretch of the film to an endless text-message conversation—it spans an entire Paris-to-London train ride, and beyond—between Maureen and an unknown number, to whom she asks such questions as “r u alive or dead?”

To Assayas’ credit, none of this plays as silly in the moment. He seems to take spiritualism fairly seriously; at the very least, he takes Maureen’s belief in herself as a medium (which predates Lewis’ death) seriously. Stewart’s work here isn’t as revelatory as her Sils Maria turn—there’s a sizable qualitative difference between bouncing off of Juliette Binoche and interacting with an iPhone 6—but her signature self-possession serves her well in this much creepier context. Compelling as Personal Shopper always is, though, it never fuses its various ideas, mysteries, and surprises into a satisfying whole. If there’s a thematic connection between Maureen’s job and her paranormal adventures (apart from communicating mostly via SMS), it escaped me entirely, and the mundane explanation for one bizarre strand of the story coexists uneasily with other aspects that remain maddeningly elusive. Even if the overall effect is underwhelming, though, it seems fundamentally misguided to boo a film that’s attempting something singular. Assayas may have faltered this time, but at least he tried.

Which is preferable: a movie that’s consistently engrossing, but fails to stick the landing, or a movie that’s so-so for much of its duration, but delivers a conclusion that retroactively enriches everything that preceded it? Personal Shopper fits the former profile; Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta (Grade: B), the latter… and since I’m giving Julieta a slightly higher grade, I guess that serves as my own answer to my question. Bouncing back nicely from the repellent disaster that was I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar has adapted and stitched together three short stories by Alice Munro, which perhaps explains why the body of the film lacks his usual narrative urgency. It certainly gets off to an arresting start: Just days away from heading to Portugal with her boyfriend (Dario Grandinetti), Julieta (Emma Suárez) abruptly decides to remain in Madrid after a chance encounter with a childhood friend of her adult daughter, Antía. It emerges that Julieta has had no contact with Antía for many years, and the bulk of Julieta consists of a flashback that begins with the train ride on which Julieta (played as a younger woman by Adriana Ugarte, who looks nothing like Suárez, but oh well) met Antía’s father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), and then continues through Antía’s entire childhood.

Naturally, our interest lies in discovering what caused the rift between mother and daughter, but Almodóvar is in no rush; for a long time, there isn’t even a sense of building toward tragedy, apart from the discordantly Hitchcockian mood provided by composer Alberto Iglesias’ Herrmann-esque strings. When the reveal arrives, however, one can retroactively see how the tracks were subtly laid, starting with that fateful train ride. Though Julieta initially looks like melodrama—partly because Almodóvar can’t resist focusing on garish colors and textures, even when they’re not necessarily appropriate for the material—it’s actually a sneaky study of crippling guilt, stopping just short of suggesting that it can be passed down genetically. Consider it the cinematic version of “You just need to hang in there until episode eight, then it gets really good.”

My favorite film at Cannes last year, Sicario, was written by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan is back this year with Hell Or High Water (Grade: B+), and if I tend to focus on him rather than on the film’s director, David Mackenzie (Starred Up), it’s only because his voice feels considerably stronger to me. Playing in the Un Certain Regard section, the film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who’ve turned to robbing banks, and a delightfully grizzled Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger on their tail; in many respects, it’s a typical cops-and-robbers story—the kind that has you rooting for both sides. Sheridan enjoys monkeying with action-movie conventions, though, and Hell Or High Water plays out in unexpected ways, culminating in a tense final showdown that’s somehow simultaneously an epilogue, the story having already concluded. (Neat trick, that.)

In particular, levelheaded Toby (Pine) and the more volatile Tanner (Foster) have a specific reason for their crime spree—one that’s reflected in superb offhand moments throughout the film, often involving very minor characters. (My favorite: a diner waitress who receives a $200 tip from Toby and is goddamned if she’s gonna let the police confiscate the money as evidence.) Sheridan’s knack for pungent dialogue, too, is still very much in evidence, especially when Bridges’ weary Ranger is trading barbs with his deputy (wonderfully played by Gil Birmingham, who’s apparently best known as Billy Black in the Twilight movies). Hell Or High Water is too modest to be great—that’s surely why it’s in Un Certain Regard rather than Competition, despite the high-profile American cast—but it’s the sort of sturdy, mildly ambitious genre effort that’s now rare enough to feel treasurable. I see that Sheridan is currently in post-production on his directorial debut, Wind River, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner. It’s scheduled for 2017. Will it be here next year? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Tomorrow: The Dardenne brothers, who’ve brought a new film to Cannes every three years like clockwork, show up a year early (Two Days, One Night premiered here in 2014). And I’ll actually review the new Kleber Mendonça Filho film, Aquarius, which I decided to push back on my schedule for reasons too dull to relate. Word from the press screening I skipped just now is fairly strong.

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