Personal Shopper (2016)

Somewhere in the grey area between perverse intimacy and crippling isolation lies Maureen (Kristen Stewart in a rich, vulnerable performance), the titular Personal Shopper in Olivier Assayas’s latest masterwork. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis died suddenly, and they agreed that, upon death, the deceased would give the surviving twin some sort of sign. Both are mediums, attuned to the spirit world, but Maureen has trouble interpreting what is a message from beyond at all, least of all from her brother’s ghost and not some other presence.

Personal Shopper is genuinely chilling at times, but it feels less like a horror film and more of an exploration of grief and mourning. Upon her brother’s death in Paris, Maureen moved herself there, and by the time we arrive, it’s been three months and she still hasn’t heard anything. She can’t bear to abandon hope though, so she takes on a job she despises, as a personal shopper for the high-profile Kyra, as she bides time waiting for Lewis to appear.

This American in Paris leads an isolated and challenging life, as a foreigner in a new place, running errands by herself, with the occasional Skype from her friend Gary. When mysterious text messages start popping up on her iPhone, she at first is hesitant and cold in her responses, then gives herself in. She gripes about her boss, reveals her insecurities, and is persuaded to try on Kyra’s bizarro harness lingerie, leading to an intimate solo moment in Kyra’s bed. Maureen even agrees to meet whomever, or whatever, is at the other side of these iMessages.

On the one hand we watch and are appalled, maybe confused, by the actions taken by Maureen. She is steadily pushed out of her comfort zone and lets herself be taken advantage of. But for someone in her situation, desperate for any sign or contact with her departed brother, we sympathize with her – who wouldn’t do anything they could for one more moment with a loved one?

I admit I left the theater in tears, remarkably moved by this haunting, lonely tale of loss. Its fascinating narrative and painfully authentic themes will ring true to anyone who has mourned and desperately waited to see the light.

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Carlos (2010)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie like Carlos. It’s hard to imagine a film that has dived in so deeply, or addressed as broadly, the world of international terrorism, its leaders, and its martyrs. Director Olivier Assayas sweeps us so effortlessly across continents, times, and languages, the sheer feat of accomplishing a work of this magnitude is nothing short of astonishing.

Edgar Ramirez delivers a captivating, wholly convincing and compelling performance as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, sometimes called “Carlos,” the Venezuelan terrorist who grew to fame and infamy in the 1970s and 80s. He electrifies the screen with a commanding power in what truly should have been a star-making performance. Like the film itself, he takes on various personae, countless fake identities, rolling non-native languages off his tongue with apparent ease.

As odd as this comparison may sound, I kept being reminded of Alan Parker’s Evita (admittedly, one of my favorite movies and certainly one of my favorite musicals). The theme of leveraging politics, or terror, into fame and infamy is a very interesting one. More so than EvitaCarlos exploits this to full affect, seamlessly weaving in real-world video reels and radio news updates, heightening both the credibility and ironic romanticizing of such terrible acts. (For the record, I do not think Carlos romanticizes terror in the least; rather, it is a creative choice to reflect one take on how Carlos the Jackal shaped his career for the press coverage. Whether that is true or not I cannot say, though it does make for interesting storytelling within the film.)

Carlos the movie is told rather unconventionally; it starts with a fairly linear narrative, with Carlos and his nuclear family entrenched in petty bougois politics. Just as he derails into organized intimidation, murder, and mass terror, as does the story, throttling us from the familiarity of home and stability to a dizzying array of new faces, locales, networks to navigate. Not only does this communicate the scope of influence and power Carlos accumulated, but also provides a chilling reminder of the omnipresence of evil and parties waiting to inflict terror upon their enemies.

Even beyond the rational, narrative means of storytelling, Carlos is a mass sensory overload. Exposing our gaze to the sun-washed deserts of the Middle East and the freezing winters of Europe, fueled by the pounding eclectic punk rock / New Wave soundtrack, the sheer power of the visual/audio cues is a force unto itself. Even when the story goes right over our heads, the film guts right to our hearts through its masterful design.

Granted, Carlos is a 5-hour movie, not without its share of violence, sex, and wholly disturbing content and characters. But it is a totally captivating, unapologetic dive into contemporary evil and what drives an individual to carry it out.