Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper

I guess we should explain how Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper arrive on this spot lumped together.  The two films are not related and each stands alone; however, they are linked together in several key ways.  Respected French auteur Olivier Assayas wrote and directed both films in succession, both opened at Cannes, and Kristen Stewart appears in both as a behind-the-scenes support person to a female celebrity.  In both, Stewart is astute and efficient, shows impressive facility with a phone (it's important, honest), and has a complex relationship with her employer.

Clouds of Sils Maria never made it to the backwaters (where we live).  Life went on, and other movies caught our fleeting attention span.  Then a few weeks ago Personal Shopper arrived at a nearby art house!  So Guy S. Malone, Researcher, and I got cracking.  We streamed CoSM one day and caught PS a few evenings later in the theater, dragging Ambrose Woolfinger and Serfing Dude along for the ride.  Yay!  Here are our musings:

Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas' shrewd drama handles big ideas--the traps and trappings of celebrity, midlife crisis, and intergenerational conflict--and brings them to a personal level through the stellar naturalistic performances of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, with Chloe Grace Moretz in a smaller but key role.  The title of the film refers to a meteorological phenomenon in which the clouds that form over an Italian lake snake through the Maloja Pass in the Swiss Alps ... It's metaphoric.

International film star Maria Enders (Binoche) is on her way to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of the man who wrote Maloja Snake, the play that launched her to stardom 20 years before.  In it, she played a young personal assistant who draws her 40-ish female boss into a lesbian relationship then drives her to suicide.  Coincidentally, up-and-coming director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) wants to stage a revival of the play, this time with Maria playing the older woman and current Hollywood It-Girl and wild child Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) as the young femme fatale.

Maria is traveling with her own personal assistant Valentine--"Val"--(Stewart), who effortlessly handles two phones at once and is seemingly attuned to Maria's every want and need.  The culturally with-it Val urges a reluctant Maria into taking the role as a great career move, even as a tragic death and the consequential run-in with an old lover throws Maria out of sorts.  She goes into seclusion at a chalet high in the Alps, with only Val for companionship.  There, the two women eat and drink and talk and read lines, with Val taking the role Maria played so long ago.  Days pass, each revealing more and deeper thoughts and feelings.  It becomes difficult to tell the difference between line-readings and real exchanges, so by the time the women set off to witness the mysterious clouds of Sils Maria first hand, the Maloja Snake has brought changes in both of them.

There is more, much more, in fact, but this is a good jumping off point.  Assayas' Mobius-strip screenplay establishes a personal assistant/boss relationship that is also a personal relationship between two women.  He then displays that in a play within the film, and we have life imitating art imitating life.  It's a difficult trick to pull off, and Assayas does, thanks in large part to the relationship Binoche and Stewart sell as if they aren't acting but rather just being.  CoSM was nominated for six Cesar Awards (the French version of an Oscar): Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography.  It would have been deserving of equal Oscar consideration.
8.5 out of 10

Personal Shopper
After Kristen Stewart was awarded a Cesar for her supporting role in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas wrote Personal Shopper with her in mind, this time in the lead.  There are other actors in the film, but this is Stewart's show.  She is Maureen, an American in Paris and the titular shopper for Kyra (Nora VonWaldstatten), a high-end model.  Maureen spends bits of her time Skyping with her boyfriend or hanging with her brother's girlfriend (Sigrid Bouaziz), but the majority of her life is spent either shopping for her boss or trying to contact her twin brother, Lewis.  Lewis, you see, is dead, a victim of a hereditary heart disease.  He was also a medium--as is Maureen--and the siblings made a pact that whoever died first would send the other a message from beyond.  By night, Maureen stalks through a dark, musty mansion, calling out to Lewis; by day, she tools around Paris on a motorcycle, picking out clothes and baubles for Kyra.

One day, as she is delivering clothes and accessories, Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra's erstwhile boyfriend.  As each awaits an audience with the model, they strike up a conversation, and both let slip their well-deserved resentment toward the woman.  Frustrated, Maureen drops the clothes and departs to continue her equally frustrating but ever more creepy search for Lewis.  Apparitions become more vivid and threatening, driving her out of the mansion.  Meanwhile, she gets no respite at her job where she begins to receive anonymous texts from someone who seems to be watching her at all times (to Stewart's credit, she can text throughout a shopping trip to London and make it interesting).  The texts challenge Maureen to engage in forbidden behavior.  As if possessed, she complies, leading to ever more risky decisions.  Forces converge that should race to a fitting conclusion; unfortunately, Personal Shopper strolls through the checkout.

With Stewart as his muse, Assayas may have hoped to catch lightning in a bottle twice.  It's not clear whether or not her charismatic performance in Clouds mesmerized him, clouding his artistic sensibilities, but K-Stew is in every scene, often alone.  Thankfully, she is eminently watchable, and Assayas has her reach beyond her typical laid-back cool persona to find sorrow, twitchy anxiety, and fear; and her honest portrayal sells it all.  But unlike Clouds of Sils Maria where she volleyed dialogue with the wonderful Juliet Binoche, each woman's talents upping the other's game, Personal Shopper offers only cursory contact with other humans.  So, while Stewart dominates the screen--and further embeds herself among the best of her contemporaries--the film itself is the lesser for it.
7.5 out of 10


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