In my quest to review every 2017 release I see, I’ve decided to cramp down on some films that I’m sort of enthused by that could’ve been better versions of themselves. The Spooky Lady-Led Trio, you could call it. All of these films have something to offer to prospective viewers, and elements I’d happily endorse, as well as things I’d readily change about them. Either way, here they are!
As an advertising hook, a film with the idea of relating to cannibalism as just one of those things kids do in college while exploring themselves was a pretty great lure to get me into the theater. A French film with a breakout female director that won a Cannes prize with every review thumbnail featuring its heroine covered in blood? This smelled like the perfect mix of art house horror and gross-out horror. And it frequently was that, particularly in the mysterious opening scene and a later one explaining it, the eating of an accidentally mislaid finger, the worst seven minutes in heaven – all the sex scenes are actually sort of terrifying, – and a scene near the end that redefines the term “leg day”. The beginning hazing and party scenes are all pretty effective, as are the more mundane frights of being accused of cheating on an exam and walking in or your roommate having sex. We the audience all made an agreement with each other as that finger was being eaten that hey, if this is a lot for you, feel free to freak the fuck out. It’s easy to see the argument director Julia Ducournau is trying to make with this film, but too often she undercuts herself in the film’s most stylized gestures. Lights flare red and pink as protagonist Justine (played by newcomer Garance Miller) is prowling parties for men to sink her teeth into, and it’s simply not as effective as seeing her carnivorously oggle her gay roommate as he plays soccer, sexually taunting an opposing team member as her nose bleeds. A dream sequence sees a horse running forever strapped in a treadmill-type machine, another one sees a dissected dog rise from its metal table, still hidden under its plastic sheet. For a film with the objective of trying to portray cannibalistic impulses as just another thing kids do in college, it regularly struggles playing things as casually with Justine as does with her roommate’s promiscuity, the general partygoing/hazing rituals of her classmates, or the cannibalism her own sister partakes in.
Played with a lived-in, grubby casualness by Ella Rumpf that’s fascinating to watch even before we learn she also eats people, Alexia’s relationship with Justine becomes an even richer mystery than the women’s shared cannibalism as Alexia continuously fluctuates between taking her sister under her wing and leaving her out to dry, particularly in a vicious fight after Justine sees a video of what Alexia got drunk Justine to do, only for it to end in a moment of unity and bonding between the sisters, perhaps the most connected they’ve been the whole film. Her own nonplussed attitude as she peels back the layers of her own depravity while trying to coax her sister down the same hole is portrayed with the offhanded tone the film should’ve stayed in, instead of the flashes of stylized lighting and odd, seemingly unrelated visual imagery. A final-frame reveal that could’ve been a whole other chunk of the film, tying back to an earlier scene where Justine is shocked to learn that *her* parents would’ve been game for her vet school’s hazing, could’ve easily been a whole narrative of the film for Ducournau to explore for both sisters had she not essentially reduced it to a jump scare. I’ve seen critics try and assign social commentary to Justine’s relationship with the gay roommate portrayed by Rabah Naït Ouffela she and Alexia both contemplate going after, in different but not ways, as taking to task the ways that straight women use and abuse GBFs, but I haven’t read the take that would make me agree with that idea completely. There’s a lot in Raw I wish were better, even though it worked plenty of times just fine and Rumpf nails every one of her scenes. Given the rise of cannibalism as a topic in film, television, and pop culture in general, I hope there’ll be a take like this that goes further and achieves the rich goals it sets for itself. But if the chance to see Raw comes your way, take it. Even if it doesn’t hit all its marks, its successes are still as terrifying and inspired as the best horror movies around, with sections so tense and horrific you and all your friends will lose all feeling in their fingers at the same time. A fun, unifying experience for the whole squad.
I’ll give American Fable credit for probably fulfilling all of its ambitions, but the success is marred by an odd directorial hawk and some too inevitably realized arcs, particularly the doomed neighbor and the escalating antagonism of the brother. Plenty had been said about the film’s stylistic and tonal debts to Terrence Malick, but I wonder how well this actually served the film. True, in a long dream sequence, director Anne Hamilton crafts a woozy, elaborately out-of-body experience that feels like an actual dream using Malick’s new-age style. Hell, actress Marci Miller, cast here as the protagonist’s mother, seems like a composite of Sissy Spacek and Jessica Chastain, while lead Peyton Kennedy is as close to Linda Menz as I’m sure Hamilton could find. However, I’d say the Malick inspirations are something of a limitation to the story, lending it a kind of fantastical or grand air that just doesn’t suit the subject matter. Why make such an event carry the kind of majesty connotations that that style implies, when something a little darker or less florid would’ve been a more apt treatment of the script. That subject matter by the way, is about a young girl who discovers that her father has agreed to imprison a land developer in an abandoned silo on behalf of a Mysterious Woman in exchange for enough money to keep their farm afloat. And that young girl, named Gitty, discovers that man around the same time her father falls into a coma, forcing this Mysterious Woman to share what she had commissioned The Father to do with His Wife and Their Son Martin, who gladly steps up to take his father’s place and falls easily to the words of encouragement this strange lady provides. She also bears a great likeness to a woman wearing armor with ram horns on the helmet and riding a black horse, who always shows up when shit gets fucked up. This woman also bears no real impact on the narrative despite being a semi-interesting figure, and it’s debatable that the actual Mystery Woman does either.
Gitty’s relationship with the Mystery Man, played with such panicked gentleness, faux benevolence, and earnest caring by Richard Schiff – what a good summer for The West Wing’s men! – is easier the most affecting part of the film. Even if it’s as easy to see coming as her relationship with her brother, Schiff and Kennedy manage to create a real bond of unclear fragility as Gitty begins grappling with what his being there means, and what she can do to help. The last shot rewards her and our faith in Schiff’s character, and if the movie around them feels somewhat under-realized, I’m still glad I got to see that relationship unfold. In fact, the film ends with more unanswered questions and loose ends than it started with, which doesn’t really do right by the parents or the ultimate payoffs, literal or otherwise, with the Mystery Woman’s request. Again, I think Martin’s arc becomes more or less predictable once he threatens the life of Gitty’s beloved pet chicken, but at no point do we see what his parents’ reaction is to where he’s left. I don’t regret seeing it, but looking back on it, there’s surprisingly little to parse over, especially in the areas it so successfully advertised as being about. A lot of that stuff – the wondrous stylization, potential supernatural elements, some kind of folkloric entity – all feel extraneous, underused, or ill-serving to the film, some parts more than others, but still. There’s bits of magic all over the place, but even more so are there missed opportunities.
So early into the year, I’m not sure this was necessarily the project I was most looking forward to, but it was definitely high up on the list. Kristen Stewart had been practically perfect in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria two US released years ago, the story itself sounded so entrancing, and reviews from several critics I trusted had been rapturous. On the other hand, plenty of friends and people I talk to online (or both) weren’t that hyped on the film or Stewart, and the Best Director Cannes prize Assayas shared with Cristian Mungui for Graduation wasn’t exactly a saving grace for what many considered to be a lackluster set of awards that managed to ignore much better films almost completely. I for sure haven’t seen all or even most of the Competition films from 2016, but Aquarius and Ellealready pose more ambitiously realized projects than Personal Shopper does, not to mention Loving’s lowkey achievements and the madness of The Handmaiden.
Hindsight being 20/20 and all, it seems almost inevitable that I’d be as unmoved about this film as I am now. Like Clouds, Personal Shopper seems to have fashioned a showcase vehicle for its leading lady without giving her a whole lot to play beyond material firmly within her comfort zone. Juliette Binoche got who knows how many monologues about the price women in Hollywood must pay to stay relevant, a sentiment that might’ve had a little more power or variance had Assayas cast an actress who could really relate to that character instead of an actress who’s stint with American movies was sort of a phase in the middle of all those French movies she was and has been making, building a massive amount of acclaim and goodwill in Europe along with winning numerous prizes in France and Europe in general. In a similar vein, Assayas casting Stewart as a woman forced to withhold herself emotional seems like perfect casting but really isn’t, constraining the actress to give the kind of laconic, uninteresting performance many had accused her charismatic, lowkey style of actually perpetrating in previous films (no, I don’t remember Twilight). I felt bad that my interest in her performance got higher as she got emotional, even though I never believed she’d actually die. I wish I felt more active restraint in her performance, trying to keep a grip on her hope and fear and curiosity at all times rather than seemingly not feeling anything except in the scripted moments to let that gas valve leak. Post-film, I kept wondering who would fit better in the lead role of Maureen. Lea Seydoux, perhaps? who gave such a restrained performance in Farewell, My Queen that was nevertheless tinged with palpable thoughts and emotions at all times and could’ve just let the film be in French. Ellen Page, maybe? not for any particular reason but if he’s gonna cast an American actress he might as well do another outside-the-box choice that could pay off big time. Taissa Farmiga, who’s been so great at doing the same kind of grounding that Stewart has been in horror films across tones and genres while being able to play perfectly with the ratio between ridiculous and earnest of each project. Fuck it, why not Julianne Moore?
I don’t mean this to rag on KStew herself, who I’d have happily handed an Oscar to for her work in Clouds, but this feels like miscasting disguised as no-brainer casting. Between Clouds and Certain Women, her particular style seems best as a kind of supporting seasoning, or at least not perfectly aligned with the tone of the film itself. Part of what made her so special in both projects is that she managed to carve a space in both films to accommodate her own persona while fitting her style into the film’s. Personal Shopper fails her by trying to tailor itself to what Assayas may think are her strong suits, which just ends up making Maureen unreadable in an uninteresting way. The plot itself doesn’t really help her, given how thin it ultimately is. Opening and closing with Maureen working in France until she finds out that her recently deceased twin brother had moved on and that there is an afterlife, the large middle of it is occupied with an unknown number texting Maureen, pretending to be and not be her dead brother and whose identity I guessed almost as soon as the first messages popped up on Maureen’s screen. There’s barely more here than Clouds, and it’s marginally better given the spooky subject matter – the few scenes of Maureen performing a seance or following her pen pal’s orders are appropriately tense – but it’s still alarmingly little for the film to work with.
Would a different director entirely have solved this trick. One person I follow on Twitter, Kyle Turner (who’s super great, go follow him, it’s @tylekurner) suggested Mia Hansen-Løve should’ve been given this project, and I firmly agree. Admittedly I’ve only seen Things to Come, one of 2016’s most perfect movies, but if that’s essentially the kind of film Hansen-Løve would’ve made Personal Shopper into, it’s an idea I fully support. That kind of observational style would’ve been a lovely prism to examine Maureen’s griefs and hopes for the afterlife, for her brother, and for her own life as she waits for a sign and puts off flying to her boyfriend in Wherever. It may also have been a fine match for Stewart’s brand of quiet charismatic performance, allowing it to flourish within her keenly observational style instead of subsuming it. Most, if not all of my thoughts on Personal Shopper are about how to make it a better movie, something I feel a little bad about given how well others have received it – David Ehrlich was practically rapturous, saying the film evoked his grief at the death of his father so potently, and his review was the best encouragement I had to see this – and I do hope people see this. It’s an ambitious project made by artists I’ve fans of outside this particular film with plenty more projects of theirs I’m actively searching for, and I respond to raves about Personal Shopper better than other positive reviews for projects I was equally meh on. See it for yourself. Maybe your opinions about it will make themselves known by smashing a glass or tearing wallpaper, or just manifesting physically and vomiting ecoplasm in your general direction. Either way, it’s an interesting project with a singular, spooky tone that’s trying more than plenty other films.