Personal Shopper (2016)

 

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So we made this oath… Whoever died first would send the other a sign. A young American in Paris Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She seems to have the ability to communicate with spirits, like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They share a congenital heart defect. She hangs around Paris near the villa where he lived hoping to receive a sign from him from the other side – he was a spiritualist. She indulges her interest in art by pursuing knowledge about a previously unknown Swedish female abstract artist.  She proclaims her distaste for her job to her boyfriend in Muscat with whom she communicates via Skype but is clearly tempted by its benefits. Soon, she starts to receive ambiguous text messages from an unknown source… Stewart always seemed to me to be pretty one-dimensional in her American films with a limited capacity to convey joy. But the issues of her expressivity are perfectly exploited by French auteur Olivier Assayas in their second collaboration even as he maintains a distance within a genre-touching exercise where emotion and excess are mostly avoided (imagine if Argento had made this!).  There is a great mood of sadness and mystery when it gets going (and it takes a while) and if Stewart isn’t this generation’s Jean Seberg she is evolving into a determinedly individualistic performer.  The enigmatic narrative has a fragility that occasionally bursts with the threat of violence real and imagined. Oddly compelling and stylish and proof that there is great potential for this American in Paris.

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How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

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I’m going to make you wish you were deadComposure magazine advice columnist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) really wants to write about important things like politics but she’s under editorial pressure. She tries pushing the boundaries of what she can do in her new piece about how to get a man to leave you in 10 days after best friend Michelle (Kathryn Hahn) has yet another breakup. Her editor Lana (Bebe Neuwirth), loves it. Advertising executive Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) is so confident in his romantic prowess that he thinks he can make any woman fall in love with him and makes a bet with his boss in time for the company ball in 10 days. If he manages it he’ll get the contract for a new diamond company.  His in-house rivals Judy and Judy (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow) set Ben up to meet Andie after they learn of Andie’s project at a magazine conference. When Andie and Ben wind up meeting their plans backfire and they do everything they can to meet their targets …  You think you know what you’re getting with a battle of the sexes comedy – after all we’ve been here before with some of the screwball greats. However where this falls down in between some very bright comedic action is ironically in the dialogue which has a vicious undertow but isn’t the consistently witty banter we want. Then there’s the meet the family stuff which underscores the sentimental base. Nonetheless Hudson is good as the smart as hell writer with her wicked conniving schemes and that glint in her eye. There’s excellent support including from her Le Divorce co-stars Neuwirth and Thomas Lennon, who’s one of Ben’s entourage. The ending is too sappy by half! This is an adaptation of Michele Alexander and Jeanie Long’s self-help book by Burr Steers, Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan. Directed by Donald Petrie who’s been around the romcom block.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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Has there been a more ravishing film in the last twenty years? Hardly. And that’s just the start of it. Patricia Highsmith was an exquisitely stealthy writer, composing short, even, straightforward sentences that revealed ever so slowly the beating heart of psychotic Tom Ripley (and others) in relatively neat novels and stories that crept up on you before unsettling you permanently. The world never seemed quite as balanced thereafter. Ripley is barely making a living playing keyboards at chi-chi events in 1950s NYC when the wealthy father of someone he pretends to know makes him an offer he can’t refuse:  travel to Italy, bring home the reprobate Dickie Greenleaf and all for a handsome reward. When Ripley goes there and finds the beauteous Dickie shacking up with girlfriend Marge he craves their lifestyle, apes their liking for jazz and begins to send some misleading telegrams Stateside to keep Pop on a leash and lure Dickie into a gay relationship (some hope). Then he goes to any lengths necessary to take over Dickie’s life. Including murder …  As a Highsmith fan I had many problems with this in the first instance:  I attended an early screening, attended by writer/director Anthony Minghella and I had a burning question to ask but felt constrained by the company:  why cast pug-ugly Matt Damon as Ripley?  Did Harvey Weinstein force it? Particularly because the moment you see Jude Law as Dickie you are simply breathtaken:  he just stuns. His performance telegraphs contempt, superiority, ease, all at once, he doesn’t have to speak, he just IS. (He was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination).  And the beautiful Alain Delon was the most brilliant, audacious Ripley in Purple Noon/Plein Soleil. When Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles he wipes Damon off the screen – and sees through his act. Perhaps that’s the whole point! In a study of class envy, Ripley is simply outclassed, on every level. Then there are the additions:  did Highsmith not write enough? Minghella created a whole new subplot with a woman called Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) whom Ripley encounters on the sea journey to Europe. She’s another discomfiting blonde goddess, balancing Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge but with a different kind of corny effect. So there are a lot of things wrong here if one thinks purely in terms of fidelity. But there are some right things too. There are extraordinary moments at times and isn’t that what Polanski says cinema is, moments? The entire effect can be wondrous, if you can get past the casting.

Roman Holiday (1953)

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Charm is such an interesting quality – so hard to define objectively and so hard to fake. And this film is teeming with it. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, then the subject of the HUAC witch hunt and written pseudonymously (Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for him and Trumbo’s credit wasn’t restored until 2003 on the dvd edition while the Writers’ Guild restored it in 2011) with John Dighton getting a co-writing credit. Director/Producer William Wyler wanted Cary Grant originally but he claimed he was too old – he would later be paired with Audrey Hepburn in Charade. In fact he probably saw that the role of the princess was the Real McCoy and would leave him in the shade. Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons proving unavailable (whew), Hepburn won her first major role on the strength of a screen test when they left the camera running and she talked about herself. Royal stories were au courant thanks to the coronation of Elizabeth II so the fable of a beautiful girl going incognito in Rome and having a day out in the company of a charming (and equally undercover) journalist, played by Gregory Peck, couldn’t have been better timed. The fact that Trumbo was writing in the circumstances of a man trapped by his own profession adds piquancy to this story of duty, responsibility and the desire for freedom. Peck knew what Grant knew – Hepburn was a star – and midway through the shoot did what only a gentleman would do, something unheard of, and asked Wyler to give the beguiling Hepburn equal billing. She is luminous in the role and they exchange looks that suggest something beyond pure characterisation – feeling. Everything looks wonderful and I’m pretty sure hundreds of thousands of people visited the city on the basis of this movie alone. Post-war Rome was having a moment, and what is perhaps most astonishing about this was the decision to shoot in monochrome. What were they thinking?! There’s a notable score by Georges Auric and it is flawlessly made at a time when the city was becoming known as Hollywood on the Tiber. Charm itself.

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)

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1964 was obviously a great year for musicals. But this is the one that nobody could have foreseen. A sung-through (opera) film about the unhappy love affair between a shop girl and a mechanic: who’d a thunk it?!  It was the brainchild of two extravagantly talented men:  writer/director and lyricist Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand, one of my all-time heroes (and still performing). They had already collaborated on Lola and Bay of Angels. The use of Technicolor, the touching performances (Catherine Deneuve’s made her an international star) and the extraordinary songs all combine to make one of the most moving and haunting films you will ever see. And the last scene, at an Esso station … oh! the magic of cinema. Magnificent.