Tag Archives: B

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Producer: Charles Gillibert
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas and Christelle Meaux
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graia, Nora von Waldstatten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet and Pascal Rambert
Studio: IFC Films

B

The very weirdness of Olivier Assayas’ second film with Kristen Stewart would seem to militate against it. “Personal Shopper” is set, to some extent at least, in the world of high fashion (Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a young American woman living in France, who picks out clothes and shoes for a rich woman too busy to do it herself). But it’s also a murder mystery of sorts, as well as a horror movie involving spectral phenomena that can apparently communicate with the living through modern devices like smart phones. It seems implausible that a combination of these elements should make for a successful film, but though its parts don’t entirely cohere, this is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, piece of work—a slow-moving, macabre psychological thriller that, while implausible, casts an intoxicating spell.

Cartwright, you see, isn’t merely the shopper of the title. She might also have psychic powers, which she is putting to the test by staying overnight in a house that’s supposedly haunted. (Apparently a couple considering buying the place won’t commit until they’re assured that any malignant spirits have been exorcised.) And that’s not all: the place was previously the home of her late twin brother Lewis and his girlfriend Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who’s trying to sell it. She shared a heart condition with Lewis, and years ago they had promised one another that whichever of them died first would attempt to contact the other from beyond. During her night in the house Maureen does encounter a ghost—a frightening apparition that sends her fleeing out the door. But it was not, she insists, Lewis.

On the job side, Cartwright continues to purchase wardrobe items for her employer Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), whose celebrity status goes undefined but whose present lover, a journalist named Ingo (Lars Eidinger), offhandedly remarks that he thinks Kyra is about to dump him. Maureen must be careful, too, since the most important rule of her job is that she must never try on the garments she buys for Kyra; she does, though, first at the urging of some of the sellers, and then back at her apartment, where wearing the items gives her the vicarious thrill of being someone else.

A plot, of a sort, emerges when Maureen takes the channel train to England and begins receiving strange text messages suggesting that she’s being followed. The insistent texts have an erotic, threatening tone, and continue when she returns to Paris, setting up an assignation in a hotel room. Are the messages from Lewis? They’re certainly not from her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin), who’s off in Oman working on a long-term tech project and stays in touch only via Skype. Then a murder intervenes, and though the identity of the victim and how the search for the perpetrator progresses won’t be revealed here, it can be said that the picture offers a startling conclusion, though one that might provoke more questions than it answers.

Much about “Personal Shopper,” in fact, is befuddling, and it takes off on tangents that allow Assayas to indulge his filmmaking whims without really seeming to go anywhere. At one point, for example, Maureen consults an old Hammer-style movie about the psychic interests of novelist Victor Hugo, who conducted histrionic séances involving table-tapping spirits whose messages had to be worked out in transcription. The digression is just that, but Assayas seems to take enormous pleasure in recreating the sixties look of the clip, and that’s enough to justify its existence. There’s also a lovely scene involving some sort of presence moving unseen through a hotel lobby that’s carried off with a ridiculous simplicity that would have made James Whale proud; the fact that it doesn’t appear to have much connection to the plot is beside the point.

Much of the brooding mood of the picture, moreover, comes not from the director but his star. Stewart, with her hollowed-out look and her often blank expression, becomes a study in sorrow, obviously grief-stricken over Lewis’ death and desperately seeking some kind of closure while fearing what that might bring. Everybody else in the cast is purely functional, but the behind-the-camera contributions are essential to the atmosphere that Assayas and Stewart create—Yorick Le Saux’s dreamy camerawork, Francois-Renaud Labarthe’s production design, Marion Monnier’s halting editing, and especially Jurgen Doering’s costumes. Even the effects—absurdly rudimentary though they might be by Hollywood standards—seem entirely right.

You may come out of “Personal Shopper” scratching your head, but you will find it hard to shake off its effect.

LAND OF MINE (UNDER SANDET)

Producer: Mikael Chr. Rieks and Malte Grunert
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Writer: Martin Zandvliet
Stars: Roland Moller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton, Oskar Bokelmann, Laura Bro, Zoe Zandvliet, Mads Riisom, Leon Seidel, Karl Alexander Seider, Maximilian Beck, August Carter, Tim Bulow, Alexander Rasch and Julius Kochinke
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B

Scenes of someone trying to defuse a bomb are old hat in movies, but though ubiquitous they can still be genuine nail-biters if skillfully choreographed with characters one cares about. Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s period drama—one of the nominees for the Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award this year—offers a succession of such sequences, and manages to generate a good deal of suspense, and empathy, from a tale based on actual historical events.

In 1944 the Nazis, anticipating that the Allied invasion of the continent might be concentrated on Denmark’s western coast, planted millions of land mines on the beaches. After the German surrender in 1945, the Danes, having suffered five years of harsh occupation, decreed that German POWs would clear the coast of the bombs. “Land of Mine” dramatizes the three months that a group of them—teens who had been conscripted into the army in the war’s waning days—must spend probing a swath of beach with iron rods to locate the bombs and then carefully defuse them. They are promised safe conduct back to Germany if they survive the job. The young men have receive rudimentary training in the task from disdainful Captain Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who frankly has no care whether they will live or die, but they actually work under the watchful eye of Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Moller), whose attitude is little different from his superior’s.

Inevitably the plot trajectory involves Rasmussen’s change of heart toward his charges as he watches them engaged in their dangerous work. And while he is the main character, and Moller inhabits the man with considerable feeling, in the process a few of the Germans are fleshed out to some extent as well. The most important is Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann), the sensitive warrior who naturally assumes a leadership role among his fellows. But though most of the others remain rather sketchy figures, a few emerge more fully: Helmut Morbach (Joel Basman), whose cynicism undermines the hope Sebastian embodies, and twins Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton), whose childlike timidity is matched only by their devotion to one another.

There is no doubt that the film is manipulative. The very act of placing these fresh-faced recruits in immediate danger—and watching them begging Rasmussen for food—is a calculated cinematic move, and the fact that any of them might be blown up at any moment (and many do, in fact, die)—is a tactic positively designed to elicit anxiety in the audience. And that’s only the beginning: a Danish woman (Laura Bro) lives nearby with a young daughter (Zoe Zandvliet) who has a tendency to wander, while Rasmussen has a beloved dog with a desire to roam. Imagine the possibilities. There’s also a twist at the close, when the promise of free return to Germany after three months is retracted.

But in this case the manipulation works, particularly because of the strong acting from Rasmussen and the starkly beautiful widescreen images crafted by Zandvliet and cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen (who at appropriate moments uses hand-held cameras for effect), abetted by the canny editing of Per Sandolt and Molly Malene Stensgaard. (Sune Martin’s score, which gives a major role to the cimbalom, is less impressive.) The film also brings attention to a little-known episode in which captured soldiers were clearly mistreated, however understandable the desire for retribution and poetic justice might have been at the time. That’s a valuable reminder for all viewers, and must have had a special effect on Danish audiences, who were compelled to face an episode in their history that’s hardly a noble one.

Probably the worst thing about “Land of Mine,” in fact, is the title that Sony Classics has chosen for the American release. The original Danish was “Under Sandet” (in German “Under den Sand”), or simply “Under the Sand.” Sony has elected to replace that elegantly suggestive title with a rather silly play on words—the land that Rasmussen proclaims is “mine” as he’s telling German soldiers to get out of it in the film’s prologue is also filled with their leftover landmines. Of course, Francois Ozon already used “Under the Sand” for his fine 2001 drama, so perhaps the change was made just to avoid confusion. Let’s hope so, because if someone thought he was being clever, he missed the mark.

It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see the film, though.