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Monday, 13 March 2017

Personal Shopper, The Love Witch, and Catfight: Your Week In Film (March 13-19)

Flair Witch: Anna Biller's mad magical oddity is a visual treat

This week's most noteworthy movie releases on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and in cinemas... 

The seemingly ubiquitous Kristen Stewart became the first US actress to win a French César award for her performance in Olivier Assayas's Clouds Of Sils Maria, and she stars again in the director's follow-up, Personal Shopper (cinemas from Friday) WWW½.

Stewart is Maureen, an American living in Paris and working as a general dog's body for a ghastly celebrity fashion model, named Kyra. She is also a medium, desperate to make contact with the spirit of her dead twin brother, Lewis, who has passed away some months before following a heart attack (she shares his life-threatening condition).

Only a hop, skip and a jump away from being a genuine horror, this is really about the emptiness of Maureen's life and the terrible absence she feels since her sibling's death. The movie opens in classic chiller tradition with the medium on her own in a supposedly haunted house, spooky tracking shots providing the requisite amount of suspense as she feels her way around in the dark. But it's really a metaphor for Maureen's day-to-day existence - barren, unfulfilled, scary, and perhaps even under imminent threat from the disease that cut down Lewis.

Stewart's Maureen is a desperate character - unable to leave Paris or move on while the possibility she might be able to contact her brother's spirit remains. Despite Kyra's superficiality and general awfulness, Maureen envies her simplicity and wealth. When Kyra is out of the country, Maureen tries on her clothes and sleeps in her bed, as if stepping into her employer's shoes (literally) for even just one night provides a welcome respite from her own existence, one in which even her supposed boyfriend (Ty Olwin) couldn't be kept more at arm's length as he works abroad.

I like Assayas, his films are the right kind of strange and he never does what you expect of him. I suppose his work can seem a bit cold and passionless but that approach works here. Personal Shopper has an elegiac quality in which post-Charlie Hebdo, post-Bataclan Paris has rarely seemed more foreboding (you'll see no shots of the Arc de Triomphe or Eiffel Tower all lit up in touristy splendour here). The director makes some odd storytelling choices too - a lengthy scene in which Stewart goes to London and back again on Eurostar, all the while exchanging texts with a mysterious person, who may or may not be the ghost of her dead twin brother, probably breaks every rule of modern filmmaking, but effectively ratchets up the suspense and finds a way to make the ping of a mobile phone genuinely sinister.

Stewart, meanwhile, continues to go from strength to strength, her intense naturalistic performances recently earning her favourable comparisons with James Dean. I feel sorry for anyone still judging her ability and career on the Twilight movies. At this point it's like dissing Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie based on your recollection of The Laughing Gnome. She's great here - as she was in Certain Women, which opened in the UK last week. Maureen is trapped, scared, shattered by grief and, following her twin's death, perhaps only half a person. In fact, the possibility of contacting her brother seems to be the only thing that keeps her upright and functioning. Stewart makes us feel every bit of it. Not with big emotional grandstanding, but often with no more than a haunted look, a pregnant pause or an exquisitely-delivered line.


Shop 'til you drop: Stewart reteams with director Assayas

American filmmaker Anna Biller is one of those multi-talented, and therefore profoundly annoying, people who seem able to turn their hand to anything. Not only did Biller produce, write and direct The Love Witch (DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and cinemas) WWW, she also made the costumes and sets, as well as painting the artwork which hangs on our titular spell-caster's walls. It wouldn't surprise me if she'd handled the catering and peddled a bicycle to make electricity to power the cameras too.

If I hadn't known it was a new film, I'd have sworn The Love Witch was a long-lost Technicolor oddity from the late sixties or early seventies - perhaps a Hammer Horror left at the back of the vault for some mysterious reason, or a lurid psycho-thriller deemed altogether too odd for wide release. Biller's painstaking attention to detail is a wonder to behold, although cinematographer M David Mullen, an expert on period cinematography, must take his fair share of the credit.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a beautiful young witch, who relocates from San Francisco to a small Californian town following the demise of unfaithful husband, Jared. It soon becomes clear Elaine is responsible for his death and her quest for true love is about to claim a bunch of new victims. Using a dangerous love potion, she makes a series of local men fall head over heels for her charms but it isn't long before the bodies start to pile up and the police are on to her.


The 'love as mental disorder' theme is hardly new but Biller gives it a feminist spin here. Although Elaine is gorgeous and men fall over themselves to sleep with her, what she seeks is true love and someone who wants her for what she is rather than what they want her to be. If Elaine is truly mad, she's been driven to it by her suitors' need to exert control over her and their subsequent betrayal once they fail to do so. As messages go, it's a real iron first in a velvet glove, as Biller's seductive visuals and dream-like atmosphere lull you into a false sense of security. 

Arguing The Love Witch wears its influences on its sleeve a bit too much would be pointless - its evocation of period is deliberate and losing that element would rob the film of one of its great strengths. And, yes, it's also camp, pulpy and, at two hours, drags a little, but several beautifully-realised set-pieces - including an extraordinary sequence set at a Medieval Fayre - more than make up for any longueurs.

Spellbinding: Samantha Robinson captivates as the Love Witch

Even better than The Love Witch is Viva WWWW, which has recently been added to the ever-changing catalogue of oddities and classics at online streaming site, Mubi.com. This is Biller's debut from 2007 and shares the same love of period detail as the more recent film, as well as its sharp feminist edge. I spent most of the first half-hour wondering what on earth I was watching as Biller (playing frustrated housewife Barbi) exchanged deliberately stilted dialogue with three other characters while occasionally disrobing in something that looked a lot like a mercifully long-lost soft-porn comedy. Viva soon finds its feet, though, and in no time at all you're under its spell, as Biller takes a sledgehammer to cosy liberal notions that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and seventies was always a panacea for women. This is an incredibly smart movie, full of ideas, incredible visuals and even the odd song - all written by Biller, natch.

I'm rather less enamoured of Catfight (cinemas and VOD) WW, a pitch-black comedy in which veteran actresses Sandra Oh (Sideways) and Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco) beat each other to a pulp in three lengthy and utterly brutal scenes guaranteed to make you wince. Some of the violence is of the hyper-real cartoon variety but a good chunk of it is nastier and more realistic than that.

Writer/director Onur Tukel's film is a satire of petty status envy, anger and irrationality set in an America only a stone's throw from reality, in which the draft has been reintroduced and the 'War on Terror' has become a permanent money-making fixture for big business as the US military rides roughshod over the entire Middle East. Living in this all-too-believable dystopia are Heche, a bitter, impoverished artist and Oh, a boozy trophy wife. The pair were friends at college but drifted apart when the former came out as a lesbian. Years later they meet again at a birthday party at which Oh is a guest and Heche a waitress. Verbal barbs and sarcastic banter quickly give way to physical confrontation as the two proceed to knock the hell out of each other in a deserted stairwell. The fight leaves Oh in a coma for two years and she wakes to discover everything is different for both her and nemesis Heche...

The film - which makes an obvious but interesting correlation between the behaviour of a government and its citizens (in this case, "might is right" seems to be the maxim of both) - may have worked as a sketch or even a short film, but had delighted me quite enough by its halfway point. Heche, Oh, and Alicia Silverstone (playing Heche's lover) are always good value, though, and even manage to imbue Tukel's patchy, misanthropic material with a bit of humanity.

Welcome to the punch: Rivalry gets brutal in Catfight

Not much better but equally misanthropic is Nocturnal Animals (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW, Tom Ford's cold, cruel and oddly distancing thriller which sees Amy Adams' successful LA gallery owner contacted out of the blue by an ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she treated badly. He has written a lurid crime novel, the subtext of which provides a bitter running commentary on their failed relationship. We then see three separate stories play out - Adams in the present day reading the book, Adams and Gyllenhaal's past together, and the contents of the crime novel itself. It's an intriguing premise that the film never comes close to living up to, although Adams - plus supporting players Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson - make it worth a look, as does the film's smart, elliptical ending.

Altogether more fun is bonkers action thriller The Accountant (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, in which Ben Affleck stars as an autistic maths savant who divides his time between forensic accounting and being an arse-kicking anti-hero hitman (or something). The whole thing is brain-manglingly absurd and uneven, but its breathless pace and the sheer brass balls of the premise just about haul it over the finish line.

What I shall be watching this week: Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning The Salesman, which is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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