Friday, September 15, 2017

Cat's Away 2: Assessing Assayas

We've now crossed the halfway mark in the nine nights my wife will be out of the country, during which I'm squeezing in as many movies as I can.

I've only seen two movies by Olivier Assayas, which is a surprisingly small number of movies for someone I have so many opinions about.

I guess I should say I don't have opinions about him personally, as I have never heard him interviewed and don't even know what the man looks like. (Not that my opinions about him would have anything to do with his appearance, of course.) But the two movies of his I've seen have stuck in my craw, in a bad way, to the extent that I roll my eyes when his name comes up in conversation.

The first Assayas I saw, Something in the Air (also called Apres Mai or After May), didn't offend me or anything, and I probably would have considered it merely shrug-worthy had Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting not sung its praises so vociferously. It's a semi-autobiographical look at a young revolutionary coming up in the radical late 1960s in France, a sort of coming-of-age story about a young man finding his voice and heading down a path that leads to him becoming a filmmaker. It's made very well but I just found it boring, and in the context of knowing it is autobiography, probably just a tad indulgent and self-congratulatory.

It was my second Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria, that made me really grumpy about the man. I found this to be an over-long bore that was pedestrian where it thought it was profound, was extremely curiously paced, and was not even as well acted as it received acclaim for being. Meanwhile, that acclaim for the film in general was deafening, and I just couldn't make sense of it. That led to my Unified Theory of Assayas, which is basically that the man makes pretentious movies that are not nearly as good as people seem to think they are.

I probably ought to see Summer Hours before I feel like I can really judge the man, but I didn't say my judgment of him was rational, did I?

Not being on the same wavelength as Olivier Assayas did not mean I was not going to see his newest film, Personal Shopper, despite some people repeating back to me my own complaints about Assayas in the context of this considerably more divisive film. I'm a fan of Kristen Stewart, even though she didn't do it for me in Sils Maria, and I always like a good ghost story. So I held my nose and took the plunge, with 22 days remaining on my 30-day iTunes rental.

And now, finally, I "get" Olivier Assayas.

So yes, I liked Personal Shopper quite a bit, though I suppose saying that I "get" Assayas is a bit misleading. That suggests he's doing the same thing he always does, but a switch has been flipped in me, and now I understand it better. This movie feels like him doing something different -- something different that I get.

Yeah, there are a fair number of superficial things it has in common with The Clouds of Sils Maria -- Kristen Stewart, her character's relationship with a female celebrity, the existence of unexplained and supernatural occurrences. But there's a big formal difference here that privileges Shopper over Maria. Part of the reason Maria felt so elongated is that it has an overabundance of dialogue-heavy scenes, many of which serve little purpose in pushing the narrative forward. Shopper has far fewer of these. It's much more of an atmospheric film that shows rather than telling, and makes good use of the little telling it does do. I didn't emerge from this experience feeling exhausted by the amount of dialogue that had fallen on my ears without really getting anywhere.

I was also genuinely surprised, and for the most part pleased, by the extent to which Assayas went for the traditional scares of a ghost story. When I heard that this film involved Stewart's character trying to commune with her dead twin brother, I imagined the supernatural elements of it being very low rent, not for budgetary reasons, but in order to fit with the sensibility I imagined Assayas to have. I figured it would be along the lines of "it's a ghost story because if you squint very hard, you might be able to trick yourself into believing it's something other than the wind moving that curtain." But no, this film goes for it on several occasions, even using genuine visual effects to create a spiritual presence whose physical existence is virtually indisputable. This surprised me and chilled me. In fact, it's rare that I am this chilled by a movie that does not explicitly try to align itself with the horror genre.

I'm not saying every part of the movie totally worked for me, and I must admit that in the last 20 minutes or so, four straight nights of starting more than two-and-a-half hours of movie viewing after 8:30 finally took their toll on me, and I was nodding off a bit. But it was a kind of "atmospheric nodding off," where the film's ethereal aesthetic choices and themes kind of blend with your exhaustion to bring something profound to the fore.

Keep surprising me, Assayas. Maybe we'll get along fine.

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