The day couldn’t begin better than with Olivier Assayas’s PERSONAL SHOPPER. There’s always been a deliciousness about Assayas’s films, and whether or not they achieve any kind of profundity, they’re compulsively watchable, and this is no exception. A central performance by Kristen Stewart confirms her standing as a young American actress to watch, as she plays American in Paris Maureen, working as personal shopper to a volatile celebrity. Maureen is also a medium. She’s in France to try to get in touch with her twin brother, also a medium, recently dead from a heart defect they both suffer from, after a pact between them that after death one would communicate with the other. The film has so many well-used cinema tropes – the supernatural, gorgeous fashion, dead sibling grief, perilous heart disease, a murder mystery, beautiful Paris… You might think it’s over-egged, but Assayas keeps up the pace and takes every aspect seriously , from genuinely creepy scenes in a classic spooky mansion in the country to the high fashion shops of Paris, even ending on a James Bondy drive to a classy hotel in glamorous Oman.
It may amount to very little in the end, but while it’s happening it’s totally enjoyable, like a good meal, and demonstrates just why the British public loves a good French film.
Next film, over the river again at NFT, was my only documentary this year. RODNYE (Close Relations) is an often painful view of the dangerous mess that is the Ukraine/Russian conflict, seen through the eyes of families on both sides. Director Vitaly Mansky is Ukrainian-born but feels himself a Russian, living in Moscow since his student days in the USSR when it was then his capital, and working there ever since. His family, however, are scattered over the country, some in newly-Russianised Sevastopol, some in Kiev, some in the conflict zone, and have varied views on the situation and their identity. Into the mix comes the fact that Mansky was born in Lvov, once Polish and previously Austro-Hungarian, and we see what a labyrinth Eastern European nationality is. There’s wry humour as the Sevastopol branch watch two consecutive New Year celebrations (Kiev and Moscow are on different time zones)on TV, half-heartedly joining in with the two national anthems, and old ladies have vitriolic circular arguments about which side they want to be. But war is never far away. The mundane glue that holds a happy life together is missing in so many ways, as a Sevastopol football fan mourns the loss to his team of a league to play in, and two bright young women in a Kiev coffee bar muse about their aspirations for a more western life, while outside the trams stop for a military funeral procession to take place. The war is always there, far away from activists and determined patriots, and the film ends unbearably sadly as a quiet, lanky son is sent off on the dreaded conscription, carrying a packet of freshly home-made treats from home.
My last day and I’m in the delightful Embankment cinema again for the second film in Official Competition (A Quiet Passion was the other), Martin Koolhaven’s BRIMSTONE. A bravura turn from Dakota Fanning and intensely beautiful cinematography give it what merit it has, but in what becomes a pompous, self-important tale of evil, there’s a feeling of wallowing in over-the-top violence and cruelty and suffering that is laid on so thick it eventually begins to pall, and that ‘here we go again’ feeling kicks in.
The evils are mostly wrought by the almost pantomimic figure of ‘ The Reverend’, played with full-on glare by Guy Pearce. The Reverend stalks the simple settler communities of the west unchecked over many years, received into churches without question, though so loopy some church elder would surely have noticed, full of ideas about his rights, conjugal and incestuous, being what God intends, and with a particularly nasty talent for violence. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t just hack a man almost to death, he also half-throttles him with his own intestines. Not necessary. Rape and every kind of murder are his stock in trade, and you sicken at the sight of yet more brain tissue and torn flesh, which would be almost funny in its excess were it not that its visions of cruelty on the bodies of women , culminating in the graphic lashing of a 5-year old girl, feel increasingly gratuitous. To dress it up some kind of feminist fable wrapped in gorgeous scenery and the fashionable minimalist look of settler Protestantism alongside broken bodies and dread is lamentable, and a waste of talent.
SCARRED HEARTS, the last film of the festival for me, introduced by its self-deprecating director Radu Jude, is an odd one. Last year Jude’s Aferim! was one of the best films of the festival, a totally original black and white, expansive take on C19th life in Romania, full of life and melancholy and meditation on society. Now Jude restricts rather than opening up his world. Scarred Hearts is set almost entirely inside a sanatorium on the Back Sea Coast in the late thirties, where we follow a young Jewish student, Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), for treatment of tuberculosis of the spine. Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Max Blecher, it creates a claustrophobic world by using a starkly containing 1.37:1 format, with a mostly static camera, closing in the perspective rather in the way that a hospital bed limits one’s vision of life around. Many of the patients are totally encased in plaster, as was the procedure then, and are therefore mostly seen at angles only in lying-down positions, the consequence being an uneasy inability to relate to them as people in the way we usually do in films. An exception is the beautiful, successfully cured Solange (Ivana Mladenovic), who revisits the wards like a fresh breeze from real life, and becomes an object of yearning for Emanuel.
With echoes of the enclosed febrile world of The Magic Mountain, conversations are a mixture of erudition, romance and silliness, lively young minds, though Emanuel can be somewhat irritating in the way of a brash sixth former who has just discovered philosophy. But it gradually s dawns on us, though the procedures are breezily described by the ever-optimistic doctor as treatment, that recovery is rare, and slow decline is the norm.
The film follows Aferim! In its meticulous recreation of a historic way of life, the medical procedures, the surroundings, the attitudes, but also uses its audience’s knowledge of what was to come, always subtly aware of scarcely mentioned anti-semitic feeling, and its resonance for the future of the country. And the jokey visits of Emanuel’s wealthy parents bear the burden of what we know will soon come to those families in the outside world just as death might come to the young residents. At 140 minutes it’s detrimentally too long, but hangs around in your mind afterwards to a surprising degree.
Out into the Babylon of the Friday night West End, I passed 8 rough sleepers bedded down for the night on a walk of a few hundred yards to Piccadilly Circus, that old hub of empire, and reflected that tuberculosis, once almost conquered, is now on its way back, along with the other ills we thought were conquered in 1945. So it goes.