The triumph of Kristen Stewart’s highly-touted performance in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is both a result of great casting and Stewart’s pressure situation for having the film’s entire plot be dependent on her character’s emotional reactions to situations. Stewart plays Maureen, a “personal shopper” for an uppity French designer. Her monotonous job involves going from store to store picking out outfits that her boss wants for her next runway show. However the film’s meat comes from Maureen’s real reason for being in Paris… finding her dead brother’s ghost. Olivier blends the melodrama of familial relations with a supernatural thriller but the film maintains a fully character-centric focus. The plot chugs only as fast and as slow as Maureen wants it to, making Stewart the center of attention in virtually every moment of the film. This speed conditioning is manifested quite literally in the long sequence in which Maureen receives anonymous texts in riddles. Throughout these sequences our perception of “time” in the movie is dictated completely by the pace at which Maureen responds to the texts. Our emotions are dictated by her’s facial response to each one she receives and the wait-time between the anonymous texter’s responses. Assayas’s deliberate subversion of American horror film tropes also play directly into Stewart’s ability to act. Ghosts, sex, and murder are all siphoned through Stewart and the camera concentrates on her personal encounters with these instances more than the instances themselves.
The ending sequences concludes with a line uttered by Maureen which explains Assayas’s entire approach to the film as a pedestal for Stewart and her character: “Is it you… or is it just me”. The phantom thumps a “yes”.
It isn’t a coincidence that many movies that deal with very troubling psychological themes have characters who collect and/or study moths. There is the surface-level creepiness of moths, the fear that they instill in us with their unpredictable flight patterns and ugly thick hairy abdomens and menacing wing decorations. They are in all accounts the sociopathic, obsessive, and much maligned cousin to the majestic, dreamlike butterfly. They help make accessible the darkness in mood and theme of pictures dealing with mental tugs-of-war. But the most obvious connections the moth motif delivers is the obsession with light. While butterflies are associated with their pollination and dispersal of seeds of flowers, a wholly serviceable and normal natural function of their species, the moth is obsessive, entranced and hypnotized by light. This obsession provides no ecosystem service in this regard, and even further, it can kill the moth, but that trans exists and it is inescapable. It’s beyond the moth’s psyche and physical control.
Similarly, here the characters in Peter Strickland’s wildly inspired and thoroughly surprising film The Duke of Burgundy are encompassed in a sexual and passion-filled existence that borders on the brim of tumultuous self-destruction. Cynthia and Evelyn are in their own world, entranced by all the facets of erotica that exist in the bubbling relationship of two lesbian lovers. To dub The Duke of Burgundy an “erotic film” would be to do a disservice to its cinematic complexity and vision as well as the viewers expectations. The movie has all the essences of erotic cinema but it only leaves them at their base individual elements; sly looks, eyelashes, curves, submissiveness, dominance, body fluids, underwear, skin, locks, chains, ropes, leather, velvet, candles, lips, and heels. The movie is a red velvet cake deconstructed into its raw ingredients with Strickland’s camera and the sexuality comes in notions and gestures, relationship politics and human emotion rather than pure sexual acts to elicit heat in the viewer. Don’t expect Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty here.
Strickland is an interesting filmmaker and this movie by him is by all means the most incredible surprise of a film that I came across all year. It is so inspired, so filled with little moments of pure cinema, the kind you know came from years of Strickland’s self-reflection of his own tastes and his own strengths. You see the extensive play with editing of Stan Brakhage, the sensual surrealism of David Lynch, and lighting and cinematography usually associated with Jane Campion’s movies. It’s a unique blend and Strickland manages it beautifully and his characters, two lesbian lovers role-playing, experimenting, and feeling each other’s vibe to ignite a new fire in their waning and wanting sexual relationship, are manifestations of our own desire to rip away from routine and boring rituals and search feverishly for a new enchantment, a new adventure, a light at the end of the tunnel… a light we flutter towards even if it hurts us. In the end The Duke of Burgundy stirs emotions and mixes inspirations into a captivating blend of surreal erotic ingredients within an emotional romantic thriller.
Oh, and please, add Peter Strickland to the company of Ben Wheatley, a guy I’ve called one of the most rocking filmmakers of this generation (and director of the best horror film of the 21st century so far), and you’ve got British indie-cinema with a bright, bright future.
Steven Spielberg’s resurgence as the premier and prominent dramatist of Hollywood cinema is warmly welcomed. While perhaps the greatest of Spielberg’s traits lie in his ability to encapsulate the wonder, enchantment, terror and peril that all culminate together to create the ultimate American Hollywood “story”, his second greatest attribute is his ability to create accessibility to the darkness of human nature. While some may find this glossy finish on gritty subject matter to be “hokey” or “kitsch”, there is a manner in which the greatest commercial filmmaker, and certainly the most influential, of the last 50 years of American cinema accomplishes this juggling feat that it culminates in powerful and personal cinema.
Since Speilberg’s last truly great film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, we haven’t gotten much out of him in terms of memorable cinema. The Adventures of Tintin I can attest is definitely much lower ranking amongst the pantheon of Spielberg outputs on most people’s lists that I have to shove aside my personal unfettered and unwavering love for Herge’s graphic novels and characters which singularly defined my childhood. That movie is 100% nostalgia for me and nothing else, so I concede I am biased.
The auteur’s last two outputs however are a different story, one of them being this year’s Bridge of Spies, a collaboration between Spielberg and the Coen Brothers (who wrote the script). The film is a showcase of good ol’ American exceptionalism when it comes to negotiations and foreign politicking. We get to see Tom Hanks strut his stuff as the insurance lawyer James B. Donovan picked by the higher ups to do a “routine” defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance is an accomplished theater actor who proves his silver screen chops here), a suspected and eventually convicted Soviet spy in the U.S. The reason routine is in quotations there is because the judicial processes of giving a Soviet spy, a “communist” (gasp! That word!) a fair trial is really a dark and upsetting joke in the film. Here, the exceptionalism in the United States in standing by its principles of liberty and justice are revealed to be a smoke-screen. Behind the fog exist deep seeded anger and paranoia, a hatred for the “other side”.
It is one thing when it’s civilians; the police officer who confronts Donovan at his home about his defense of Abel, the train passengers who stare Donovan down with all the conceit and suspicion in the world, and his own son who questions his father’s loyalty to the nation after he is fed the exaggerations and fear propaganda of the Cold War in his classroom. Regular people are suspicious, they go by what they read, what they see, the influence of society and its perceptions, the uneasy fear of foreign threats and ideas, something which is rearing its ugly head in today’s American society as well. But when it is elected officials, government workers, and those in power who let that paranoia and hatred get in the way of the liberties the United States offers to foreign citizens, criminal or not, which no other country is so generous to offer, then the system collapses and we, slowly and surely, become them.
Bridge of Spies depicts an America at the crossroads of turning on itself (yet again). In an era where people were blacklisted, ostracized for their political and social beliefs, something we said would always be a freedom in this country, an era where a government official (Joseph McCarthy) went on an obsessive witch-hunt against all those he defined as “traitors”, “communists” and a list of other propagandist impact-words, an era right after World War II in which we incarcerated in concentration camps Japanese Americans because of our paranoid fear of them and their mere presence being considered an ill to society, America continued evolving into dark, troubling, and socially broken versions of itself, one decade after another.
It’s the truth many people don’t want to hear, and in Bridge of Spies, James Donovan is Spielberg’s plea to the American people that the liberty and justice we offer is only special because it applies to even those who can’t do anything for us. For it, he received bullet shots through the windows of his house. His house where his children and wife lived, bullets were sprayed by other American citizens. (cue Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II)
Is there a semblance of parallel from Coen/Spielberg’s Cold War America to our America today? Perhaps the timeliness of Bridge of Spies is not by accident, but rather, by blessing. Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker known for his accessibility and serviceability to the American audience. He brought the complexity and enormity of the Holocaust into our homes with Schindler’s List, a cinematic achievement which would have been impossible without his sensible touch. There is no condescension in the way Spielberg (or The Coens for that matter) presents the American xenophobia of the Cold War era, in this case, not a matter of race, but of ideology.
Rather, Bridge of Spies works like an old yarn your grandfather would tell after dinner. It arrives with lightly treaded footsteps and grows ever so dark as it goes, the suspense (meeting the Russians), the chills (interrogations of prisoners), the horrors (climbing the Berlin Wall) but it prevails with an All-American pride, one in which Donovan’s compassion towards a Soviet spy, at the time the worst of worst criminals (why aren’t we HANGING HIM? the court disturbingly erupts after a lenient sentence), is the true symbol of America because it can be empathetic and understanding where no one else can.
This doesn’t mean Spielberg equates the nations and their ideologies, oh no. This is the greatest juggling feat of all, and probably one which most people in American need to hear today. Spielberg puts the worlds of Eastern Germany and the Soviet bloc in perspective. As Donovan rides on a train through Berlin he witnesses a helpless couple try to climb their way over the wall only to be shot and killed in cold blood only inches away from freedom. But this is not a viciousness that resides in the hearts of individuals, but in the hearts of national leaders.
Throughout Bridge of Spies we get a brilliant contrast between Donovan and Abel’s American-Soviet friendship, juxtaposed with the cruel and unrelenting distrust between national figures. As Donovan first goes into the negotiating room, after having his jacket haggled from him by some East German hoodlums, and meets the “secretary” Ivan Schischkin to the Soviet base… and he later realizes the man he’s meeting is a top ranking official… and the jacket that was stolen from him was correctly identified by Schischkin as a Sacks 5th Avenue. No words or actions can be taken at face value here, and Donovan’s combination of both whimsy and serious business, perfectly captured by Tom Hanks’ performance, is a microcosm of what we consider an idealistic vision of America’s foreign policy, but one which, in reality, is hardly carried out in such a diplomatic manner.
This difference of dealing with Soviets and dealing with Rudolf Abel is a nation vs person conundrum that most people still can’t seem to grasp. In today’s America where people, especially immigrants, are consistently labeled on a collective basis rather than an individual one, ironic considering recognition of individualism is this nation’s claim to success, there needs to be a restructuring of the social connection between us that remembers a story like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. As Donovan rides on the train once again at the end of the film, this time a hero and with other passengers looking at him with admiration rather than (as previous) contempt, he looks out the window and sees a country of people freely walking amongst the streets, with cars, clothes on their back, kids climbing over the fence joyous and care-free (a signature melodramatic touch by Spielberg to the earlier heartbreaking scene at the Berlin Wall), and a nation comparatively prosperous and well put together to its nemesis East Germany’s crumbling, decaying infrastructure. It’s a moment to be proud to be American, but it’s also a somber moment because the individuals in the East Bloc suffer from the actions of their leaders, something outside their control.
Countries and governments fight, they engage in backstabbing, and they negotiate on hardline terms, but we as individuals share a direct connection of experience that doesn’t define us by the actions of those in power. We can see each other as Donovan saw Rudolf Abel. It is not a traitorous notion, nor is it un-patriotic to befriend despite polarized ideologies, but rather, as Spielberg declares in Bridge of Spies, part of what is truly American.
By creating films based on timely novels, stories, and pop-culture phenomena, David Fincher almost guarantees his films will draw attention for a longer time than they really deserve. I mentioned a while ago how people really need to start “getting over” Fight Clubbecause frankly, it’s not that great of a film (gasp! did he really just write those words with a straight face?!?), it is simply a pop-culture relic of counter-culture thought. That’s not to say it’s not good, it certainly is, but again Fincher’s movies hitting American culture’s popular artifacts right at the apex of their relevance helps propel them further than they could have gone.
Anyway, in this sense, imagine if Fincher decided to make The Social Network after people got tired of Facebook, or something better was about replace it? What if he decided to adapt Gone Girl say, 15 years after the book’s inception? Would we have payed so much attention to it? Would there be some time to digest the material and concentrate more on the pathology of marriage and it’s decay, its turbulence, and eventual reconciliation? This is all hypothetical, but it’s important to ask this because Gone Girl if anything is a representation of reactionary filmmaking to a controversial event. Gillian Flynn’s book is certainly not a traditional story, it does not have a comfortable trajectory. For popular fiction, this book rides against a tide of what people usually expect from this kind of novel. In the same way Oliver Stone’s W or that Ashton Kutcher-Steve Jobs movie hit theaters right after their subjects became a tidal wave conversation piece, in the same way Fincher’s Gone Girl treats Gillian Flynn’s novel as something that is supposed to make people react. It works because it’s topical… the book released recently, there was already buzz about it everywhere and due to the movie people who are adverse to ‘reading’ will be able to eagerly join in on the conversation.
Double-edged sword alert: Just like Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush piece and the Kutcher-Jobs film, because of Gone Girl‘s topicality, it completely forgoes saying anything about its own subject. There’s nothing insightful that Fincher adds to what Flynn said in the book, and its because the film is riding entirely on the book’s reputation. In the same way the Harry Potter films desperately clung onto J.K. Rowling’s reputation as a precedent and then continued replacing every ounce of magic in Rowling’s world with elaborate special effects, David Fincher replaces any conversation of marriage that Flynn wanted to address in the story with a simple “He’s an asshole/She’s a bitch” mind-game. That’s probably why the ending of the film felt a bit gimmicky because it never really ended with a bitter compromise, but just a bleak captive situation in which we feel sorry for Nick that he’s caught in a spider’s web… the more he struggles the harder it is to escape. I would like my readers to go watch John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence to gain an interesting perspective on marriage, and see how a “bitter compromising ending” is handled well in a film script… and trust me, the wife and husband’s tug-of-war is just as infuriating if not more so because it’s displayed as being rooted from a completely normal circumstance (alcoholism).
But let me save Fincher’s soul after I’ve picked it apart. The acting in this film is phenomenal. Rosamund Pike and Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) steal this show, and interestingly enough for completely opposite reasons. Pike is incredible because she signals you to be uncomfortable right from the get go with the way she purposefully offers stilted dialogue delivery. The idea of making her read her lines to Affleck as if she was reading straight off of her character’s journal was inspired because you automatically sense something between the two isn’t normal or real despite their initial passionate love. Tyler Perry on the other hand is perfectly cast, and his character is the most likable… this is rather cheeky because Perry’s Madea character is one of the most infuriating people on the cinema screen. It’s very refreshing to see Perry play someone who maintains the enthusiasm with a completely laid-back unassuming attitude. I like to call these kinds of characters the “Gandalf characters” because when they show up, you’re always assured things are going to go right.
What Fincher succeeds with in his actors counters his lack of exploration of Flynn’s novel, but it should never replace it. The most important thing to remember about Gone Girl is that it is a story of marriage above everything else, and psychology, regardless of how haywire it becomes, is still rooted to the issue of being with someone else for the rest of your life and the mental fortitude that takes. In this sense, I wished Fincher thought about these things instead of lacing together a sleek and polished product to latch onto a novel’s coattails, but it’s still a movie worth watching… even though it’s not really a movie worth remembering.