Monday, May 1, 2017

Two recent French films: Personal Shopper, and Frantz

Here are two French films worth catching. What is it that the French have? Their work is so good, or, is it that we only get to see the best of the best?

1. PERSONAL SHOPPER

PERSONAL SHOPPER is the second film that Director/Writer, Olivier Assayas and actor, Kristen Stewart have made together. The last was CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, starring Juliette Binoche. Ms Stewart was the supporting artist of that film. In this new film she is definitely front and centre - the star, the camera hardly has her out of sight. I had never seen Ms Stewart in any other work that I could remember, not even any of her extensive child/teen films, let alone any of the TWILIGHT franchise, so, I was curiously, surprisingly, arrested with her performance in the CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA - I could hardly shut up about her - she won the French equivalent of the Academy Award - the Cesare - the first time a non-French actor had done so.

PERSONAL SHOPPER, too, arrived with glowing broadcasts of Ms Stewart's work and she delivers an amazingly focused performance with her Maureen. Maureen, a young American in Paris, works as a personal shopper for a busy fashionista, Kyra (Nora von Walstatten) and carries out her work with professional precision, however, spiritually debilitating it may be. In that modern world the internet gadgets of that world dominate her interactions - it is a set of cold pragmatic interactions - some chillingly unsettling, as that with Ingo (Lars Eldinger), the insecure partner of her boss.

To complicate, lubricate the film, Maureen's brother, and twin, has recently died from a congenital heart disease, which she, too, has. He was a 'medium' to the spiritual world and together they have promised to reconnect from the other world with a 'sign'. Maureen stays in the house that her brother lived in and has sensed some atmosphere. Or not. The CGI spiritual arousals of ectoplasm that we witness are sophisticated and intriguing, indeed.

The Spiritual hunt for a 'sign' created, for me, the tensions of the Henry James' film adaptations of THE BOSTONIANS (1984) and THE TURN OF THE SCREW, its film title being: THE INNOCENTS (1961), both dealing with 'ghosts', or not. This film quickly ratchets up into a gripping ghostly modern thriller, on her trip to London by train on assignment as the personal shopper, as her iPhone begins to receive messages that seem to suggest that she is being stalked intensely by an omnipotent eye. This riveting 14 minutes of cinema is a crash course in a contemporary acting development from Ms Stewart that is a complex revelation and has one, as the audience, gasping as to what is 'real' and what is an 'actor's choice' - she makes her 'acting' invisible, and immersively thrilling for us, her audience. Ms Stewart does not require you to love her, and I reckon that is part of her modernity - why she is so arresting - why she demands your co-operation.

The combination of an old-fashioned spiritual thriller in contemporary dress with the contemporary world tools that we all have in our pockets or purses, lifts the work into a more than clever experience - it reverberates, dare I say, with the same urgency of the time reality that Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), did - the idea that all the events of the film were happening all about oneself, contemporaneously.

Thrusting forward with a relentlessly swift pace and the subtle intermingling of both 'worlds', combined with the cool, (stunningly beautiful) and absolutely modern character created by Ms Stewart, PERSONAL SHOPPER delivers the thrills in a deeply satisfying manner. The film does not feel 'cheap' or 'cheesy' even despite the genre territory, for the performance, the Cinematography, by Yorick Le Saux, the Editing, by Marion Monnier, the colour Design are flawless.

Some have felt that not all of the film 'adds up', but if you watch closely, it does - just! The final sequences in the 'old world' of a distant country, Aman, far removed from the present modern metropolis thump-beat, brings a pacific and satisfying resolve to the ghost story. Or, not.

The performance by Kristen Stewart is as arresting as anything that Isabelle Huppert has given us - and you know that is saying something - she maybe her heir! Although a French film, PERSONAL SHOPPER, is played in English. Highly recommended.

2. FRANTZ

FRANTZ is a new film from Director, Francois Ozon. It was written in collaboration with Phillipe Piazzo, inspired by the Ernst Lubitsch, Paramount 1932 film, BROKEN LULLABY.

It begins in a battle scarred provincial town in Germany after the First World War. Adrien (Pierre Ninney), a French ex-soldier is observed grieving at the grave of Frantz, and gradually finds himself inveigled by the family of the dead soldier. Anna (Paula Beer), the grieving ex-fiance, and his parents, Doctor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Maria Gruber).

In stunning black and white cinematography that occasionally subtly shifts into Sepia colour (Pascal Marti), with Production Design by Michel Barthelemy and Art Design by Susanne Abel, the romance of this story, moves through the pains of the aftermath of war on the people of two nations and travels along a narrative trajectory that is gorgeously provocative and unexpected. The performances of the two principal leads, especially Ms Beer as her character dominates the latter section of the film, are ideal in their understated offers, beautifully supported by a vast company of the other actors.

It is a beautiful film that transports one out of one's daily life and has a modern integrity of manipulation that can be highly recommended. Not to be missed, especially by those with a romantic heart and faith in the destiny of the human animal. Do Go. The French have what ? A je ne sais quoi - an indefinable something that captures elements of being human in a totally optimistic but real way.

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