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Cannes 2016: Almodovar and Assayas summon ghosts of the past

© Films du Losange

Video by Genie GODULA

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-05-18

Cannes Film Festival veteran Pedro Almodovar delivers a subdued motherhood drama in "Julieta" as France's Olivier Assayas earns lusty boos and rave reviews with his bizarre and spooky "Personal Shopper", starring Kristen Stewart.

There’s been a lot of moaning about the length of films in this year’s competition, much of it justified. While the gruelling 173 minutes of Cristi Puiu’s “Sieranevada” felt integral to this absorbing, almost real-time portrayal of a never-starting dinner, works like Maren Ade’s delightful “Toni Erdmann” and Andrea Arnold’s overblown “American Honey” cried out for a little editing. But after watching Pedro Almodovar’s latest competition entry on Tuesday I was wishing the veteran Spaniard had added depth and length to his subdued 96-minute drama.

From left to right: Inma Cuesta, Emma Suarez, Rossy de Palma, Adriana Ugarte and Michelle Jenner show a little bit of leg during a playful photocall for Pedro Almodovar's "Julieta".

Freely based on three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, “Julieta” revolves around a mother’s search for her daughter, retracing three decades in the life of the eponymous protagonist. Julieta is played by two actresses, with Adriana Ugarte embodying the radiant and sexy young woman and Emma Suarez her mature, tormented variant. The former is clad in bright blues, the latter in bleeding reds. The ploy pays off, capturing the traces of time and a lifetime of sorrow on Julieta’s wearied expression.

On the surface, “Julieta” is reminiscent of Almodovar’s motherhood-centred “All About My Mother”. Yet the supposedly crucial relationship between Julieta and her daughter is barely sketched during some of the film’s least satisfying scenes. The meandering script throws in a mix of themes including betrayal, bereavement, guilt and spiritual quest. It features several twists, but none of them with the dramatic force of Almodovar’s finest works.

"It's possible that I may go down the road of austerity from now on," Almodovar told reporters after the film’s Spanish release in April. He has certainly ditched humour and toned down the melodrama in his latest feature. And yet “Julieta” still ripples with the director’s typically vivid, overripe colours and flamboyant decors. It marks a welcome return to complex female-based intrigues, albeit with diminished narrative power and moral consequence.

While Julieta is haunted by ghosts of the past, phantoms make a more tangible appearance in Tuesday’s other competition entry, Olivier Assayas’s divisive “Personal Shopper”, which prompted both rave reviews and the festival’s first lusty boos. The Paris-set but mostly English-language feature sees the French director teaming up again with Kristen Stewart after they scored a hit two years ago with "Clouds of Sils Maria". Stewart played a personal assistant to a film star in the latter film. This time she is a personal shopper to the stars, with psychic powers she once shared with her late twin brother, with whom she is trying to reconnect.

“Personal Shopper” confirms Assayas as a supple and playful director, adding a story of ghosts and supernatural powers to his already eclectic body of work. It pursues his interest in transnational characters living in a globalised, high-tech culture, and features a familiarly inscrutable plot that generates just about enough mystery to sustain viewers’ attention through some vapid scenes. Stewart is left alone on screen for most of the film – to the delight of her numerous French fans. And while she does a good job of entertaining us, the script gives her little to chew on during lengthy and often tedious sequences that involve her shopping, texting, skyping and driving around Paris on a scooter.

Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart at the "Personal Shopper" photocall in Cannes.

Still, the world’s most prestigious film festival has a history of booing Palme d’Or-winning entries (think of “Taxi Driver” and “Pulp Fiction”), and the jeers that followed the press screening of “Personal Shopper” have only fuelled the excitement around Assayas’s film. For all its silliness, this bizarre, unclassifiable movie certainly has the provocative dash required of a Cannes sensation. And with the competition feeling lacklustre so far, it may yet come back to haunt its detractors.

Date created : 2016-05-17

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