This week we’ve got reviews for Personal Shopper and Beauty and the Beast:
By Alan Zilberman
Kristen Stewart will never star in a film like La La Land. She may have a terrific singing voice, but her acting instincts are too inward. Her characters would never dare share what they’re feeling, unless said declaration was meant as passive aggressive hostility. A reserved, borderline obtuse acting style did not serve her in the Twilight franchise, since Bella is a hollow husk of a character. Luckily Olivier Assayas – the French filmmaker who specializes in slow-burn intrigue – has found his muse in Stewart. In the recent Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart took an ostensibly dual role and found resentment alongside cautious empathy. Assayas’ follow-up is Personal Shopper, and it features Stewart in every scene. It is a strange, genre-bending film: it mixes a ghost story, a Hitchcockian thriller, and a muted character study. The film would fall apart without Stewart, whose unique abilities elevate the material into something strangely moving.
A young woman (Stewart) is taken to an isolated mansion in the French countryside. There are long takes where she wanders from room to room, or smokes a cigarette. There are scary noises at night – a thump, a creaking door – and the woman calls out a man’s name into the darkness. This is our introduction to Maureen, an American who believes her recently deceased twin brother Lewis haunts the mansion. Out of obligation more than anything else, Maureen stays near where Lewis died, in the off-chance his spirit tries to contact her (he promised he would). She makes a living as a personal shopper, someone who picks out higher end clothing/accessories for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), an unspecified celebrity. Maureen misses her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin), and spends time with Lewis’ ex Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz). Her routine feels suffocating, but then she receives texts from an unknown number. Could the texts be from Lewis? Probably not, except Maureen starts to entertain the idea.
The opening act of Personal Shopper follows Maureen, never quite deigning to explain the particulars of her life. We learn the details slowly, and in convincing ways; Assayas mostly eschews the tropes of supernatural horror. He would rather consider the premise with realism, asking how a modern woman would come to believe in ghosts. The answer involves a cocktail of grief and hope, and Assayas ups the ante with ghastly special effects. The ghost scenes are creepy and ephemeral, and since no one else besides Stewart experiences the supernatural, we are left wondering just what to think. This technique could have been annoying – he offers one clue, only to add another layer to the puzzle – but it is ultimately involving since the plot serves Maureen’s character development. She hopes against hope – not that she would let anyone else know that.
The centerpiece of Personal Shopper is a sequence that likely made Brian De Palma jealous. Maureen takes a daytrip from Paris to London, runs an errand, then gets drunk in Kyra’s apartment. Throughout the day, she sends and receives texts from that anonymous number. Each notification comes with the requisite sound, and the pauses between each sound and Maureen’s errands lead toward more curiosity. The sequence ends with a much-discussed payoff – it involves Stewart in a sexual situation – and yet her sexuality or nudity is not the point. All this behavior ties to Lewis, in a cocktail of grief and yearning, and Maureen cannot always contain them. The texting continues well beyond the London trip, leading toward a moment of well-earned, delightful suspense.
Hitchcock famously did not think much of his actors, and his leading women in particular. He would abuse the director/actor relationship, torturing his actors until they achieved exactly what he wanted. There is no sense of that in the relationship between Assayas and Stewart. He gives Maureen room to breathe, using negative space and backgrounds to heighten her isolation. There are few close-ups in Personal Shopper; Assays prefers a medium take, in no small part because it gives Stewart the opportunity to find nuance in body language. As Maureen, Stewart is introspective, even a little cruel, as she wanders from one transaction to another. She finally lets her guard down in a scene with Anders Danielsen Lie, who you may recognize as the lead from Oslo August 31st. He plays Erwin, Lara’s new boyfriend, and he breaks down Maureen’s defenses simply by having no hidden agenda and speaking sincerely. Assayas lets the dialogue speak for itself, only to upend again our notion of all that preceded it.
There are lots of isolated questions in Personal Shopper. One of them is quite literal: during the texting sequence, Maureen has this strange habit of putting a space between the end of a sentence and a question mark. She does that a lot, except when she loses patience and really wants to know who is messing with her head. Throughout Personal Shopper, there is a fluid line between objectivity and Maureen’s internal struggle. The only wholly objective sequences are what she watches on her iPhone, including a film within a film about Victor Hugo leading a séance. Many questions do not have answers, and one in particular has the complexity of Schrodinger’s box. That is ultimately immaterial, since Maureen does not require a tidy resolution. If the final scene offers a twist, it is deliberately unsatisfying. The remarkable development – one that few films achieve – is how seemingly random events coalesce into a bizarre, albeit satisfying journey.
Beauty and the Beast
By Trisha Brown
The good news about Beauty and the Beast is that you’re already right about it. No matter what you think of it before you’ve seen it – that it could never hold a candle to the 1991 animated classic or that it’s a more feminist remake of the Stockholm Syndrome-reminiscent original or that there’s no way a singing candlestick could hold your attention for two hours – you’re almost definitely not going to feel any differently about it after you leave the theater. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is the Rorschach test of big budget fairy tale remakes: you’re going to find in it exactly what you’re looking for.
For the sake of the 5 people unfamiliar with the story and characters, a quick recap: Belle (Emma Watson) is the kind of beautiful weird girl that would be a perfect YA heroine, but who is a bit of an outcast in her French village. Gaston (Luke Evans) is the “no doesn’t always mean no” bro who wants to marry her, and LeFou (Josh Gad) is the devoted friend/lackey who is in unrequited love with Gaston. When Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) ventures out to sell a clock, he gets lost, stumbles into some bad weather, and ends up the prisoner of a prince who has been cursed and is currently in the form of a beast (Dan Stevens). For some reason, Belle goes to take her father’s place as palace prisoner, and she finds the entire castle is enchanted when the clocks and teapots strike up some casual conversation.
All of that is mostly the same as the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast, which director Bill Condon’s new live action film closely mirrors. With a running time that’s about 40 minutes longer, it’s immediately obvious that the writers of the new version have crammed some more stuff in – a back story regarding Belle’s mother, another about Beast’s father, some new and extended songs, a slower build to the Belle/Beast relationship that makes it seem less instantaneous and weird, and so on. All of those pieces are meant to add depth to the story, and in some cases – most notably, the extra scenes between Belle and Beast – it works. But on the whole, the movie is too long. The first half drags a bit, and it’s an odd choice to lengthen it, especially since very few movies need to be longer than 120 minutes, and anyway, everyone’s just waiting for Belle to get to the castle so she can hang out with the entertaining flatware.
Speaking of the singing dishes and housewares, the voice cast also has some heavy hitters, including Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thomson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiere. Not for lack of effort, McGregor almost certainly suffers the most in comparison to his 1991 predecessor, Jerry Orbach. McGregor’s French accent isn’t great – though to his credit hardly anyone else even really bothers with an accent – and truthfully no one could displace Orbach’s classic work charming and vamping his way through “Be Our Guest.” The good news for McGregors is that the animation and visual effects will keep the audience mostly engaged during that well-known song, so he’s really just doing background music. The film on the whole is gorgeous, so it’s no surprise that the lists of people involved with visual effects, art, make-up, and special effects are a mile long.
Much of the music holds up well. That should not be surprised. Most is lifted from the timeless, award-winning score and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Some of the cast is also more vocally successful. Gad and Evans, with their musical theater backgrounds, are particularly fun to watch when it’s time to break into song. Leads Watson and Stevens were obviously cast more for their acting skill than their vocal talent, but they do a serviceable job hitting the notes. And I can’t even pretend to be unbiased when reflecting on Emma Thompson’s work singing the Oscar-winning title song. Thompson can basically do no wrong, she crushed it.
Seeing Beauty and the Beast is a uniquely subjective film-going experience – you probably already know if you’ll like it. As a casual fan of the original film, I didn’t think the remake was flawless, but I did find it generally pretty delightful. It was a relief to see that Belle and Beast do actually seem to develop a real relationship (by the fairy tale metric, anyway), and though the film is only slightly less white and only very slightly gayer than the Disney ilk from whence it came, some progress is worth something. If you’re not looking for singing furniture and a happily ever after, you probably already know this movie isn’t for you.