Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Personal Shopper

Anyone who knows me will know that I love films that push at boundaries, that don't conform to expectation or normality. I loved this year's Elle for its risky but fascinating depiction of sexual assault, I adored last year's The Neon Demon for its willingness to show us things that mainstream Hollywood wouldn't dare to touch. Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, follows this trend to a certain extent. It isn't exactly boundary pushing, nor will it be controversial in any way, but it is entirely uncategorisable - I have never seen anything like it.

Assayas' film is part ghost story, part character study, part suspense thriller and part murder mystery. It rarely overlaps the four genres or tries to bind them into a whole, yet they each feel vital to the film's identity. Scenes are frequently punctuated with a fade to black followed by a hard cut pulling us into the next sequence, as if to signify another tonal shift that paradoxically feels both smooth and abrupt. It's a wholly bizarre handful of genres to put together and an even more bizarre way of handling them, but Personal Shopper has such a tight hold on everything in its palm that getting caught up in its unique ride is inevitable.

The film finds Kristen Stewart staring as Maureen, a personal shopper for supermodel Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She travels to fashion designers and picks up the outfits and accessories for her, Kyra is far too important and busy to waste time on such a trivial task. Maureen is also a medium, as was her twin brother before he died from a heart attack. Her brother suffered from the same condition as Maureen, and the two once made a pact: whichever one of them died first would find a way to communicate with the other, proving the existence of an afterlife.

But Personal Shopper doesn't stop there. It wants to be more than this. Maureen is also plagued by an unknown individual who repeatedly texts her, wanting to know and understand everything about her. She frequently stays in Kyra's apartment whenever she's out of town, trying on the clothes she's forbidden from wearing because she wants to indulge her own fears. The film's story may be simplistic but it finds a complexity within Maureen herself.

She's an immediately compelling character, and very rarely does the film push her off screen. Early on, Maureen insists that should her brother communicate with her, nothing will change. The people with whom she shares this side of her life see a distant and almost robotic person merely working through the motions of a pact once made with her brother, yet the moments we spend alone with Maureen in the house her brother died in demonstrate a woman deeply longing for answers and truths.

An early portion of the film abandons spoken dialogue, simply letting the words flow through Maureen's text conversation with the unknown number. We follow her day to day life, travelling from Paris to London and back for her job, but we learn about her mentality and begin to understand her at the same time. She sits on a train surrounded by strangers with whom she doesn't speak, yet when one texts her and asks what she fears, she gives up the answer almost immediately.

The film even turns this into a heart stopping, almost Hitchcockian tension piece in the climax when Maureen turns her phone back on and a backlog of texts roll in one by one - it may sound trivial, but when the messages are telling her that the sender is approaching her hotel room and the final one reads "I'm on the landing", try not to feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Assayas turns what could be a gimmick into a masterstroke in simple tension, creating a unique atmosphere in a film that consistently surprises.

Personal Shopper is not for everyone. Boy, is that obvious. It doesn't spoon feed answers in the final act, it doesn't aim for crowd pleasing horror scares or simple plot twists, it has no intention of moving at a quick pace. This is slow and melancholy and thoughtful, but it never sacrifices character or thematic content in favour of being weird for the mere sake of it. At its core, it's an exploration of grief. Further still, it looks at self perception and how we react to the parts of ourselves rooted deep within. If you want easy answers, Personal Shopper is not for you - it's far too intelligent and unique for that.

At the centre of it all, though, is Stewart herself. It's bad form as a critic, but I struggle to find a single word that does her performance here justice. She makes Maureen's everyday life feel tedious and lacking, yet whenever Personal Shopper shifts into horror mode it's the fear and desperation on Stewart's face that draws in all the tension. The film's final shot, an elongated take that focuses on her face for one final conversation with the dead, demonstrates her emotional range with more success than most actors could ever dream of. Personal Shopper is a terrific film, and Kristen Stewart is the pinnacle of its success. One of the year's best.

In A Sentence

Carried by a career defining performance from Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper is a tense, atmospheric and profoundly unique piece of cinema that admirably refuses to confine itself to one genre.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Broadchurch - Series Three, Episode Four

Contains spoilers.

Narrative momentum are two words that rarely come surrounded in positive connotations when it comes to whodunnit crime dramas. More often than not, they all follow the same structure: episode one will deal with a crime; episode two will introduce suspects; everything between that point and the penultimate episode is used solely for red herrings, false alarms and character growth; finally, everything comes out in the finale. It's a tried and tested formula, we know it works. Yet, even in the most successful examples, it creates the kind of narrative that always risks turning stale at any moment.

It's pretty exciting, then, to see that Broadchurch is willing to wrap up a few of its most notable dangling threads so soon. After two episodes of suspect interviewing and blame passing, we're getting answers. The man that Trish slept with on the morning of her assault was her best friend's husband, Jim Atwood. The person who sent the abusive texts to Trish days after her assault was her estranged husband Ian's new girlfriend. Granted, this takes us no closer to discovering who Trish's rapist is, but it allows for a renewed focus heading into the back half of the series.

It's probably possible to massively over analyse this, and read so far into who has been revealed as what so far that we can start to rule people out. Would so much focus be put on Jim so early on if he is eventually to be revealed as the rapist? Is the ex-husband archetype all too obvious? Push these aside though, and we find more questions still unanswered. Who sent Trish the flowers and mysterious note? Why is salesman Leo Humphries so blunt and aggressive? There's a lot still to learn.

All that in mind, Broadchurch is balancing itself nicely at this point in time. Answers and questions are dropping in equal measure, creating a simultaneous sense of both mystery and resolve. It's easy for detective dramas to stall for so long that the detectives themselves can't help but feel lacklustre - Broadchurch isn't slipping into that pitfall. Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller are still great at their job, and Tennant and Colman are still great in their performances - the way Tennant played that wonderfully awkward date sequence was a delight, as was the disgust on Colman's face during the interview with Aaron Mayford.

Even with this sense of narrative momentum, though, Broadchurch's third series still feels as if its unsure of itself. The general supporting cast remain frustratingly under written, bar one or two exceptions - Lindsay Lucas may be the most heartbreaking secondary character the show has written this series. The story feels full swing now, but Broadchurch as a show still seems to be holding back. It makes for a more satisfying fourth episode, but the cracks in the series three's foundations aren't getting any closer to sealing up. If they don't, we could be in for a solid ride to the finish line but a pretty shoddy celebration.

  • I didn't have time to talk about Mark and all of that in the review, so let's look at there here. He's paid some guy to track down Joe Miller, is keeping that from his friends and family, and is trying to recruit Paul the Reverend to come with him to find him. The less said about all of this the better, really. Broadchurch either needs to tie Mark Latimer into the main story more closely, or it needs to reduce him to a tertiary character. As brilliant as Andrew Buchan is in the role, I'm leaning more towards the latter.
  • The football sequence was really well played. I half expected a tonne of stuff to kick off (pun intended, not sorry) and for everything to go haywire for some cheap drama, so writer Chris Chibnall handled that moment well.
  • It's really worth noting how reliably good the performances are in this show - even aside from Tennant and Colman, everyone is terrific. Julie Hesmondhalgh, Arthur Darvill, Georgina Campbell, Jodie Whitaker, Andrew Buchan, Charlotte Beaumont, Chris Mason. Everyone is consistently on top form, it really adds to the atmosphere of the show.
  • Ellie bumping into Alec after his date was brilliantly funny.
  • In fact, that whole date scene and everything leading up to it make a strong case for the highlights of the episode. It's nice to see Ellie laugh at Alec in a light hearted way, and even more pleasing to watch Alec in such a gently awkward situation. It reminds us that these people are human, that they do have characteristics and identities outside of the misery that is their work life.
  • "Was that you being a supportive boss?" "Yeah. No good?" "Awful."

Series Three, Episode Three - Previous | Next - Series Three, Episode Five

Monday, 13 March 2017

Broadchurch - Series Three, Episode Three

Contains spoilers.

Broadchurch is in a tricky place right now. On paper, things appear to be moving forward. New suspects are emerging, suspicious faces are growing more guilty and peripheral characters are beginning to find their stories for the series ahead. Yet, even with this in mind, it still feels as if Broadchurch is holding back on us this year - at least so far. After a solid and confident series premiere, the ITV drama has been content to just interview suspects and hop around between characters, only offering one or two notable scenes over the last two weeks.

Luckily, even when Broadchurch stalls its narrative, it remains a show so packed with stunning visuals and great performances that a dull hour still seems a long way away. This week, the guilty eye shifted over to Clive Lucas (Sebastian Armesto), the cabbie who took Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh) to the party on the night of her assault. Of course, some other stories emerge too, and episode three does a better job than last week's instalment at integrating these subplots into the focal story without causing unnecessary distraction.

That isn't to say they feel necessary though, because as of now, they certainly don't. Mark Latimer's attempt to continue Danny's trial feels well intentioned but misjudged. I'm not fully sure what a better way to continue Danny's story would be, but hammering in on last series' horrendously mishandled trial plot is never a good idea. Tom Miller's new found porn addiction also isn't really clicking yet, but it seems as if it has a direction, so I'm willing to roll the dice with this one and see where it heads.

The majority of episode three is focused on the investigation, and it helps maintain a sense of focus. For the first real time this series, we feel just how daunting in scale Hardy and Miller's job is here. By taking us through a number of new faces the episode adds depth to the investigation while also forming a pathway, even if it still doesn't seem prepared to fully run down it yet. By this point in the show's first year I felt as if I'd lived in this community with these people for years, I felt the impact Danny's death had. This time around I know the faces, but there's little behind them beyond the structured enigma of every whodunnit series.

Luckily, Broadchurch corrects that issue with one suspect tonight - Clive Lucas. By focusing this week's episode on him, we finally get an understanding of who he is and what he could have been doing on the night Trish was raped. It deepens his character and advances the plot simultaneously, a balance that Broadchurch hasn't been striking particularly well so far this series. Armesto's performance is terrific here, he succeeds in finding something down to Earth about Clive during his interview, but when we gain more information later on courtesy of his rather unhappy wife, his final appearance in the episode feels like watching a whole new man.

Speaking of his interview, what a scene. Broadchurch has always been the kind of show that works best when there are fewer people in a room, when the conversations can be direct and focused and important. By withholding information from us and then only revealing it in the interview room, a simple piece of dialogue is transformed into an endless roller coaster of mini reveals and subtle character definitions.

It's the kind of scene that Broadchurch offered between every ad break back in 2013. We may only get one or two per episode now, but it just about makes each entry worthwhile. There still isn't quite enough here to chew on for me - this new supporting cast just aren't sticking and the actual crime is still too shrouded in mystery for that to be easily forgiven - but Broadchurch seems to be on its way to correcting this. If it stays moving in this direction, we could find that same greatness that the show forced on us back in year one.

  • Katie Harford feels like a character finally! Hooray! After calling for her to be fleshed out more last week, it was a delight to see her actually out on the case tonight. Her whiteboard of suspects was impressive too.
  • Miller's face when Hardy turned down food at the cafe was priceless. Olivia Colman may be a tour de force in the emotional department, but her comic timing is exquisite too.
  • After last weeks' visually lacking episode, we were once again treated to a mass of wide shots and scenic locations. Never lose them, Broadchurch. They're your saving grace in your weakest moments.
  • As well as the big sweeping shots, there was some stunningly intimate stuff on display tonight. Trish hiding under the windowsill while her husband is framed outside through the window above her was extraordinary.
  • You do need a rest, Hardy. Miller's right, she's always right, just listen to her.