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Entries in Cannes (3)

Wednesday
Jun152016

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie and Ty Olwin.
Writer/director: Olivier Assayas.

Selected In Competition at 69th Festival de Cannes; screened at 7.00pm on Monday, May 16 at Salle Debussy, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

A lonely existence tormented by distant voices is examined in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a moody, occasionally frustrating, often brilliant study in isolation, grief and disenfranchisement. Although it is likely to prove more critically divisive than his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, the French director’s latest is a typically challenging drama employing such disparate flourishes as murder, high fashion and the supernatural. Reports of audience discontent at the Cannes screening your critic attended were greatly exaggerated; the absorbing work should further strengthen the director’s reputation as one of world cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries.

Assayas sets a chilly tone with a haunted-house opening sequence that introduces Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a twenty-something American suffering the emotional stress of having recently lost her twin brother, Lewis. Walking the dark halls of an empty, vast suburban home, Maureen reaches out to her sibling’s spirit; as a medium, her will to connect with the afterlife is strong and soon evidence of her twin’s presence becomes clear. Assayas seems to enjoy the genre tropes inherent to a ghost story. The cloudy wisps of ethereal intrusion into her world that are glimpsed in the corner of a room or over Maureen’s shoulder bring on the goose pimples; a last-reel development leaves a last-gasp impression not soon forgotten.

In the real world, Maureen is a ‘retail expert’ for flighty model/starlet Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), tasked with sourcing the latest Euro-threads for an employer she rarely sees. A cross-borders train ride that consumes the second act pits Maureen against a nameless text-stalker, whose flirtatious words initially empowers her (she is ‘seduced’ into visiting a hotel room and dress in erotic attire to appease his wishes) but soon become sinister and frightening. Assayas proves a deft hand at these Hitchcock-like machinations; the text may be from Kyra’s smarmy boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) or, more intriguingly, from beyond the grave.

For over two decades, Olivier Assayas has provided complex, multi-dimensional roles for women, from Clotilde de Bayser in Winter’s Child (1989) and Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) to Connie Nielsen in Demonlover (2002) and Juliette Binoche in Summer Hours (2008); the female lead in an Assayas film requires an actress of international standing at the top of her game. Kristen Stewart proved she had the mettle to carry a support part as (another) personal assistant opposite Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria; she became the first American to win a Cesar, taking a Supporting Actress trophy for the role.

Stewart steps into an Assayas lead role with a performance of slowly unravelling psychology coupled with a brittle emotional and physical presence. The scenes where she calls forth the afterlife capture a heartbreaking longing for her late brother. The connection he provided to human emotion is now gone from Maureen’s life; she talks to a distant boyfriend via Skype, about a job that she undertakes alone, in a city that speaks in a foreign language. Her sadness is conveyed in such an understated manner by Stewart, the inevitable moments when her disconnect consumes her and she begins her journey back to self-belief proves deeply moving.

Personal Shopper wrings the most out of every moment, which occasionally messes with the tonality of the film and the flow of a coherent narrative; is it a horror film or murder mystery or a coming-of-self drama? But Assayas and Stewart both exhibit masterful command in their grasp of twisty storytelling and full-bodied characterisation; the joy is in deciphering their examination of an unsatisfying existential familiarity, presented in a most unfamiliar manner.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE Feature on Kristen Stewart, 'Can The Queen of Cannes Conquer The World...Again?' here.

Saturday
May142016

THE STUDENT

Stars: Pyotr Skvortsov, Viktoriya Isakova, Yuliya Aug, Aleksandra Revenko, Nikolai Roshin, Svetlana Bragarnik and Aleksandr Gorchilin.
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov; based upon the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Screening in Un Certain Regard at 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salles Debussy.

Rating: 4/5

Fervent creationism faces off against wide-eyed Darwinism amidst the already volatile environment of high school life in Kirill Serebrennikov’s chilling psychological drama, The Student. The Russian auteur’s journey into the dark recesses of a fanatical mindset provides religious extremism with a truly terrifying façade – the unbridled and fearless arrogance of a disenfranchised teenage boy.

Serebrennikov (Yuri’s Day, 2008; Betrayal, 2012) offers up a compelling microcosm of the faith-vs-fact debate that has grown in intensity and ferocity around the world in recent decades. That he also bolsters his narrative with themes such as teenage sexuality, institutional bias and agenda, free speech and Oedipal issues proves both ambitious and intellectually engrossing. The melding of the director’s storytelling skill and playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s stageplay proves a match made in…well, it’s a good match.

The titular protagonist is Veniamin Yuzhin (the remarkable Pyotr Skvortsov), a lean, surly teenage boy living with his struggling single-mom (Yuliya Aug). In a pre-credit sequence, he seems to be remarking with typical teenage disengagement that he wants out of his school’s mandatory swimming lessons on “religious grounds.” Only after he is taunted by the bikini-clad mean girl Lidiya (Aleksandra Revenko) and ends up submerged beneath the bodies of his classmates do we learn of his spiritual will; the young man lives an existence devoted to the Bible scriptures, each memorised and instantly recalled, often with a cruel bitterness capable of levelling any counterpoint.

Soon, the school body is energised and enraged by Veniamin’s outbursts, none more so than biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) who finds both her devotion to scientific study and faith-free middle-class life the target of the teenage evangelist’s wrath. In one ferocious sequence, Veniamin’s reacts to a carrot-and-condom sex education lesson by stripping bare and leaping from table to table, citing verse after verse of the scripture’s stance on love, sex and marriage. The passages cited begin to take on deeply anti-social views, be they homophobic, anti-semitic or just plain hypocritical; the foreboding sense that Veniamin’s crusade is about to turn irreparably destructive mounts with tangible tension.

With the school administration towing both the Kremlin’s line on religious education (in 2013, President Putin made the teaching of faith-based culture compulsory in secondary schools) and allowing for their own beliefs to affect their handling of Veniamin’s and Elena’s conflict, the scourge of religious extremism leads to an inevitably chaotic and tragic conclusion. The filmmaker leaves no doubt as to the role that unwavering and literal devotion to the written word of God plays in his narrative; Serebrennikov is not the type of director to create this vivid, scorched landscape of complex morality and biblical scale and then not take a stand.

As rich in allegorical intent as the very best of Russian cinema, The Student will ignite post-screening debate as it traverses the global festival circuit. Religious devotion at the expense of the very humanity it purports to enrich is endemic to every faith-based society; the existence of Kirill Serebrennikov’s frantic, frightening film will help to generate crucial discussion on the true nature of dogmatic fundamentalism the world over.

Thursday
May122016

CAFÉ SOCIETY

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Judy Davis, Paul Schneider and Anna Camp.
Writer/Director: Woody Allen

Opening Night Film, 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salle Debussy Theatre.

Rating: 4/5

Given the richness of Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking cinematography and the rose-coloured hint of melancholy it invokes, the urge is to posit Café Society in with Woody Allen’s ‘Americana’ period of the 1980s. Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days reminisced on bygone days, his latest is an often giddy, always gorgeous love-letter to both the Los Angeles of Hollywood’s golden era and New York’s swinging jazz club scene of the 1930s.

Yet for all the declarations of passion and sun-bathed joie de vivre of lovers encircling each other, Allen’s characters are an immoral, shallow, even shady bunch. They are descendants of comic creations that the auteur has crafted superbly in past works, that much is true, just not the films that Cafe Society aesthetically recalls. These self-absorbed philanderers and shallow socialites are the miscreants of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point.

To his own narration, Allen opens his film poolside in LA, as a Hollywood party is in full swing. Uber-agent Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell) is holding court, name-dropping with sleazy Hollywood abandon (“I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers”), when he hears from his East Coast sister, Rose (Jeanne Berlin, stealing most scenes she is in); his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading his way and needs work. The young man’s arrival leads to some neat fish-out-of-water bits that don’t particularly further the plot (notably an extended gag about Bobby’s first visit from a professional girl), before he is given a menial job at the agency and assigned to Phil’s PA Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) on weekends to be shown around town.

Eisenberg, riffing on Allen as has become de rigueur for the director’s leading men, and Stewart, whose lightness of touch proves a revelation and classically photogenic charms are adored by Storaro’s lens, have developed a sweet rapport after past efforts together (Adventureland, 2009; American Ultra, 2015). Their courtship scenes are the best moments in Café Society, especially a sequence that has them tour Beverly Hills, taking in the star’s palatial digs while wonderfully revealing character and chemistry. Another glorious set-up, during which the electricity in Bobby’s apartment blacks out and he tends to Vonnie’s broken heart by the glow of candlelight and streetlamp, all but guarantees DOP Storaro mention come Oscar time.

Soon, the machinations of plot take over and we learn that the love that keeps Vonnie from Bobby is very close to home. The west coast scenes skip along at a lively pace, endearing each character and milking the most from a storyline that is not very ambitious (and, to Allen’s fans, a tad familiar) but which engages thanks to Allen’s ensemble and masterful sense of timing.

The story shifts to New York and characters that were peripheral comedy relief become the centre of an ever-expanding narrative. Bobby returns home and begins to walk in the shadow of thuggish big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), robbing the film of Carell’s and Stewart’s presence and the ‘zing’ they share with Eisenberg. As Bobby’s east coast love interest Veronica, Blake Lively is every bit as captivating as Stewart but is afforded far less character development; an underworld subplot that involves murder and corruption feels unconvincing and perfunctory (and often overtly bloody). The Woody Allen who once perfectly captured the alienation of a New Yorker in Los Angeles is nowhere to be found here; Allen’s LA story is sublime, while his NYC-set narrative stutters.

Allen last filled the Cannes opening slot with arguably his best film in recent memory, Midnight in Paris. If Café Society does not match the sheer delight of that period piece gem, nor attains the caustic and captivating immorality of, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours, it fits with a body of work from a director still determined to explore the shading between the themes of love and deceit, truth and pretension, desire and commitment. Though not the sum of its many wonderful parts, Café Society still represents a captivating melding of the light-and-dark complexity of Allen’s best work.