Two more really great ones from 2017. Both of these films are definitely aware of, and really play with classic horror tropes.
I’m probably not the first to note that Get Out is kind of The Stepford Wives + Rosemary’s Baby + Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But all of those references notwithstanding, it’s also totally original and really, really fun.
Get Out is the rare movie that I want to see with a huge, loud crowd. That’s what it was – people talking to the screen, lots of side-comments…and it made it better.
Jordan Peele hasn’t really just made a horror comedy, he made a horror movie that’s also ironically funny. It’s not the same thing. I feel like horror comedies, if they’re actually scary, tend to either get laughs from corniness or homage, or in the reverse situation they just mock the genre. Peele has clear reverence for both genres and that shines through.
There’s also some daring choices. My favorite scene is Georgina’s (Betty Gabriel) close-up in Chris’ (Daniel Kalyuuya) room. The frame is so tight and it settles on Georgina for so long. As she moves slowly forward the dolly painfully moves back with her. The creak of her footsteps takes up most of the diegetic aural space outside of dialogue. And on his reverse there’s a really slow push in, compressing that space even more.
The scene is just so tight and effective. It’s beautifully paced.
Great performances in here, but on the Armitage family’s end, it’s Catherine Keener and Allison Williams that steal the show. That’s partially because their male counterparts, played by Bradley Whitford (hardly recognizable!) and Caleb Landry Jones, are just so much more animated. They, especially Jones’ Jeremy, feel a bit more like caricatures.
Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria was one of my favorites of the year when it came out. Personal Shopper isn’t exactly to that level, but it’s damn good. The film is a good companion piece. Kristen Stewart again plays a sort of celebrity assistant. Here she’s Maureen, the personal shopper for the rarely on-screen Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten; whose character kind of reminds me of Chloe Grace Moretz’s in Clouds).
Also like Assayas’ last film, Stewart plays someone who seems slightly uncomfortable in her own skin, and enjoys slipping into that of another. She’s magnetic, and Assayas clearly thinks so, too. He trains his camera on her enigmatic face for the entire film.
I had this same question after seeing Clouds: How does he get away with all of these fades to black? Most films – wouldn’t work. It’s so close to amateurish, but they’re done so confidently that you just kind of go with them. I also think that both films have an odd momentum. Neither is headlong, even though this one is a ghost story. Both sort of stutter their way (in a great way, mind you) across genres, and so the start-stop-start of an abrupt fade to black fits the pacing.
Sometimes Personal Shopper is classically gothic. Ghosts abound (including one in a shot that reminded me of the close from Life During Wartime), haunted houses creak and moan. But other times – probably most of the rest of the film – that mood just permeates the edges, and the film feels like something closer to the spy paranoia of a North by Northwest. I probably get the feeling because of how much time Maureen spends on her phone in this film. Sure, Hitchcock didn’t get tons of tension from a phone, but when Maureen is on a train, getting possibly-threatening, possibly-comforting texts, and Assayas constantly cuts to the screen, the tension is somehow so high that it feels like the “innocent bystander” narratives of North, or The Man Who Knew Too Much.
It’s amazing how much suspense is derived from the phone. Uncanny. A lot of that is how comfortable Assayas is to make this a film about technology. Maureen is a medium some of the time, but otherwise she’s on Skype or texting. And she seems so drawn into both worlds. It feels in some ways like a more serious companion to the TV show Search Party from last year (which I really liked), where the gambit is to make the film logically about a younger generation first and classically suspenseful second (and/or: identity film first, genre film second).
Assayas is the absolute master of “put stuff somewhere else to get the characters to move.” That’s often his blocking strategy and it works. His camera feels like it’s between handheld and steadicam. I love the motion of it. Like in Clouds he often moves two characters in a pretty small space. Here, one of the strongest scenes is between Maureen and Ingo (Lars Eidinger). It’s a long sequence, taking place entirely in a living room/hallway area. There’s so much movement of both character and camera and it captures her nervous energy and his odd ease perfectly.
There’s a scene in here that I’m sure will be (or has been) much talked about. Two consecutive sequences, one where something leaves a hotel (some ghostly presence) and, the next where Ingo leaves that same hotel, clearly just after, and in an almost identical series of shots. The two sequences are directly back-to-back, and are preceded by a really suspenseful moment that itself ends with, you guessed it, a fade to black. It’s such an ambiguous moment – almost like the pre-epilogue ending of Clouds.
The suspense of this moment: who or what is that first presence leaving the hotel. Is it Maureen and we’re just in her POV? Is it her brother, with whom she tries to communicate? It seems to leave the hotel and go across the street (which doesn’t happen with Ingo). Which of these two (the “presence” and Ingo) was the one texting Maureen? Either way, Assayas has already revealed in the film that ghosts very much exist, and this, as with a later scene, just further pushes that idea.
It’s not like Assayas is on a brand new track. Some of his earlier films are definitely female driven looks at identity, often masquerading as a specific genre. But with these last two it really feels like confidently he’s at the top of his game.