A Ghost Story (2017), dir. David Lowery

ghost_story

A24’s power as an independent studio is quickly rising. Founded in 2012, their first directly financed production, Moonlight (2016), fought La La Land at the Oscars and won. But A24 is more than its successes, supporting smaller scale productions, A Ghost Story gaining $1 million against its $150,000 budget. A24’s presence is welcome in a diversified film market supported by other recent players like Netflix, Amazon Studios and Neon. Distributed in the UK by Picturehouse Entertainment, Picturehouse have beaten out other studios to distribute recent releases like Elle and God’s Own Country that, in another time, might have received other methods of distribution.

As he tells on Vox’s I Think You’re Interesting, Lowery spent the early 2000s making use of Netflix’s DVD rental service, watching Cassavetes and much of that era’s wave of Asian cinema. Though Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon didn’t make Lowery a household name, it proved a breakthrough. As Lowery tells No Film School, A Ghost Story was his “summer vacation movie”, produced within a two-month window. Self-financing the film, Lowery was “prepared for it to fail”. Talking to Filmmaker in July 2016, Lowery described “[wanting] to make something small and tiny and handmade”. As he tells Filmjournal, Lowery never signed “oaths of secrecy”, allowing crew to post to Instagram.

With a 34-page script, Lowery recruited cast easily.

I just texted Casey and said, “Hey, I’m making a ghost movie this summer. Do you want to come be in it? You have to wear a sheet.” And he said, “Sure.”

Casey Affleck’s presence in any film is controversial, thanks to the sexual abuse case coming to light. Though Casey Affleck has had many roles, beginning with early films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Affleck has spent most of his career overshadowed by Ben Affleck until his Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea, protested by sexual-assault survivor advocate Brie Larson. In many ways, Manchester by the Sea parallels A Ghost Story: a film about life and mortality as Affleck’s Lee Chandler deals with the loss of his brother, caring for his teenage nephew. Manchester by the Sea equally approaches time as fluid, moving into flashback of the burning house without clear delineation. Lowery explores events leading up to C’s death with restraint, not resorting to melodrama but positioning his death through the mundane: a car crash. Speaking in Filmmaker, Lowery describes allowing us to “luxuriate in something […] profoundly personal”, depicting C “checking [his] email and watching a video on YouTube” in an earlier cut of the film.

"Hello." Leica Q / Summilux 28 / f 1.7 / ISO 100

A post shared by Bret Curry (@bretcurry) on

Lowery had been interested in ghosts since childhood. In his 1988 first film, inspired by Poltergeist (1982), a film he was “aware of but definitely hadn’t seen”, 7 ½ year old Lowery used his dad’s friend’s camcorder, its cloak, square frame, sound effects and fade to grey prefiguring what he would perfect with A Ghost Story. An 18 year old a decade later, Lowery shot Ghostboy during senior year on a Hi8 camcorder, a film so bad it “depressed [me] for the rest of the day”. As he tells No Film School, the image had been “waiting for the right movie”.

Although Affleck’s presence as a white sheet, communicating emotion through its circular eyes, seems not to require acting ability, Affleck still has some performance to give. As he points out in Filmjournal, Affleck was “really upset” when Lowery had to use another actor in reshoots and pickups. But Lowery found the sheet difficult to pull off; in early footage, the ghost had “no elegance, no grace, no sense of the ethereal”, like “a sheet stumbling through a frame”. Shooting in 33 frames per second, Lowery made the ghost “three-dimensional” through fabric, allowing arms to move and “making a trail”. As he points out on I Think You’re Interesting, the iconic image emerged from the theatrical tradition of burial shrouds, a tradition evoked as we view C’s cadaver underneath a cloak, Lowery’s camera holding on the body for a full minute. As he says, the ghost is a “very recognizable image”, existing as the Snapchat logo, an emoji and LEGO figure, but we “don’t really think about what that means”. Lowery drew from an existing canon of ghost films, from “Michael Myers [wearing] the sheet with the glasses” in Halloween (1978) and the rules established in Beetlejuice (1988) and Ghost (1990).

As a Hispanic family moves into the house, living breakfast and Christmas rituals, the ghost haunts as an active agent not invisible force, breaking plates and interacting with physical space. In the commentary, Lowery notes The Conjuring 2 as one of his favourite films, watching it before filming the sequence. As Andrew Karpan writes, Lowery’s long takes evoke the “malicious and unseen monster” of the Paranormal Activity series (2007-15); “the family, more reasonable than any in a horror movie, simply move out.” Lowery’s ghost interacts with physical space, granted a realm of communication with the house next door, waving towards what Lowery describes as a “grandma ghost” with a floral pattern (played by Lowery himself), utilising subtitles for the viewer to intuit conversation. Will Thede’s remix A Friendly Ghost Story makes A Ghost Story’s relationship with the existing canon explicitly clear, cutting clips of Casper (1995) against the trailer.

Rooney Mara, having excelled as Faye in Song to Song, remains one of cinema’s greatest actresses. As Mara notes, actresses are expected to “either be shy and very polite and well-spoken” or “the crass, brassy, cool girl who drinks and eats pizza”, but she fits into neither. Lowery depicts small moments, showing M’s intimacy with C as they kiss in bed and embrace, framed in tight close-up. As he notes in the commentary, Lowery called cut partway through, but let the camera roll. We see the arguments, beyond absolute perfection. As he notes in the No Film School interview, the scene had been 10-pages long, shot over the course of the day, inspired by an argument he had with his wife, Augustine Frizzell. As he says, they were “discussing the plans for our future” and “draw[ing] lines in the sand”; in the moment, he “could see the end of our relationship”, despite calming down and coming to “a very sensible resolution”.

Rooney Mara, M. Mamiya RZ67 / Mamiya-Sekor 90mm / f 2.8 / @kodak Portra 400

A post shared by Bret Curry (@bretcurry) on

M’s reaction to grief provides a useful counterpoint to Jackie. In Jackie, the First Lady’s grief is overwhelming as she falls apart. But M’s grief is epitomised by binge eating. As a neighbour pops by with a pie wrapped in tin foil, Lowery emphasises isolation and personal space as she consumes the pie within a single shot, before running to the toilet to throw up. The bodily experience – consuming and expelling – summarised within a single scene. Though Mara wanted macaroni cheese or chocolate chip cookies, Lowery let producer James M Johnston to cook a vegan gluten-free, sugar-free chocolate pie. M sits, not wearing shoes, as the ghost remains in the edge of the frame, in the back of her mind, observing events as she reshapes her relationship with the house. Lowery explains in Filmjournal wanting to “feel the sense of loss” as “tangible”, at a “more meaningful level” than “crying her eyes out in bed”, restricting to one take controlled by Mara’s “own volition” without blocking or discussing beforehand. Lowery let Mara draw upon Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), reflecting the book’s exploration of grief “manifest[ing] itself in the most mundane moments.” M must live life with absence, though C remains a presence. Meeting another man, we never get to know about their relationship or her feelings as a character, but the absence speaks volumes.

A Ghost Story is highly symbolic, the same year as Aronofsky confounded viewers through his similar transgression of horror, mother!, utilising allegorical narrative and archetypal characters. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery’s lights carry visual symbolism: the hospital drowned out by reds and blues; the reflecting light in the living room. Lowery asks what meaning objects, people and places we hold onto carry. Like Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story details trace present through paranormal visitations tied to personal mourning. The paranormal is itself about trace, from ghosts in photography in the 1800s, and series like Ghost Hunters (2004-16) seeking to provide videographic proof of a ghost’s existence. Our lives are series of traces, markers towards our presence on Earth left behind. M reads over a book, finding a trace of their relationship within its text: a shared library between a couple, with unspoken symbolic significance granted, no matter how mundane. Between copies of A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Nietzsche, all objects cannot be detached from the life they live. An epigraph drawn from Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House (1921) is equally a trace: “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.” Whilst emphasising relationship to physical space, the extract is itself a trace, detached from the work many decades after publication. Cinema depends upon intersection with the present: the act of watching a film, its trace within memory and preservation for future generations.

A Ghost Story has a Malickian element, following from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). As Lowery says of George Washington (2000), he was “influenced by Terrence Malick inasmuch as David Gordon Green was”, reflecting upon the voiceover in Days of Heaven (1978). As Marshall Shaffer parallels to Boyhood and The Tree of Life (2011), time is “elemental” to the production process, from Malick’s elongated edit, Linklater’s decade-long shoot and Lowery’s “furtive” summer, describing Boyhood as “strictly secular”, The Tree of Life as “religious” and A Ghost Story as “nebulously spiritual”. As Shaffer writes, each film depicts time as “both antagonistic and awe-inspiring”, with the “main conflict” being to “hasten its speed, fend off its advances or stop it altogether”.

The nihilistic monologue performed by Prognosticator (Will Oldham) perhaps makes Lowery’s existential philosophy most abundant: a person can make out, or be a labourer, or writer and carry a life of meaning, but the death of the universe and species is scientific fact. As Lowery says in The Verge, Prognosticator is “representative and reflective of my own thought process”. For Lowery, he lays “two-thirds of a pretty good argument”, with the film “[taking] it all the way” to truth and meaning. As he says in Filmjournal, he wanted to “address” his “existential dilemma” and “give myself some degree of relief”. Although Lowery describes himself as “very pragmatic” and subscribing to “some degree of spirituality”, a holdover from his deeply Catholic family and theology professor father, the film is more interested in our relationship with physical space. As he tells The Guardian, the trigger had been Kathryn Schulz’s article The Really Big One, in a heated political climate feeling like “the world was on its way to ending.” Lowery is interested in time before and after, exploring life’s cyclicality. In a flashback to the 1700s, we witness a family settling around a campfire in the 1700s, constructing the foundations of the house. In a cut, the family are murdered by Native Americans; in another, the family are reduced to rotting skeletons. As he says in the commentary, Lowery was assisted by director Shane Carruth, reshaping the film from his initially linear narrative. Lowery reminds us of the youth of the US itself, eliminated from existence within an instant.

Like the documentary Starboard Light, Lowery intersects the personal with physical houses, emerging from Lowery’s own spatial displacement against his personal identity. Speaking in the No Film School interview, Lowery recalls the argument with his wife that inspired the scene between C and M, remembering moving to LA and New Zealand for Pete’s Dragon when his “identity belonged in Texas.” As Tad Friend writes, Lowery grew up in a farmhouse in Irving he was “convinced was haunted”, before being self-diagnosed with “hypnagogic sleep disorder”. Lowery undergoes displacement of body and space, with Friend noting feelings of “being suffocated”. As Shaffer writes, all three films he analyses use Texas as “a spirit from which they can draw history, mythology and weight”, using the state’s “vast and multitudinous expanses” to “ponder the tension between the supreme importance of a given moment and its relative insignificance on a cosmic scale.”

Lowery pays close to natural elements like rain, using the house’s frames to parallel the frame of the film, panning from the window. In flashback, C and M visit properties, guided by an agent. On her laptop, M searches for other properties. Lowery’s use of digital displays leads to, as he describes on the Vox podcast, a contemporary yet elusive period that combines the antiquated and rural, a Macbook appearing but no phone. As he comments, growing up in the 80s he felt connected to an analogue world. In his absence, M packs up boxes, moving out, hiding paper within the walls of the house: securing a record of her existence as the doorframe becomes painted over. The ghost moves through the house as though moving through purgatory, before disappearing into disembodied nothingness by the film’s conclusion. The ghost’s persistent existence might seem a middle finger to Prognosticator’s dismissal of belief, but is this the case?

As Lowery recounts in the No Film School interview, producers Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston consulted with demolition companies to find “condemned properties”, finding the house’s owners “incredibly generous”, using their granddaughter as “Rooney’s stand-in” and as “one of the pioneers”. We move through time as the house devolves, crushed as paint wears away, a lizard taking over remains of human space. As the house is demolished and the ghost watches on, diggers and construction workers take their place. Watching George Washington, Lowery admired the film’s cinematic language, utilising the walls of cinema and landscapes of the natural world, contrasting open spaces and urban decay with the world’s imperfections. In the house, we sense a similar vibe. As Lowery mentions in the Filmjournal interview, he likes “the idea that when you leave a room” a “little bit of yourself behind”, with the energy transferring from the body in death “exist[ing] in the space you’re in.” Speaking in No Film School, Lowery mentions being “very open” to ghosts existing, but is “content to just wait for [proof] to present itself to me or not”. Working with the team at WETA that helped on Pete’s Dragon, the evolution of the house becomes a reflection of the transformation of the United States itself: the Texan house has become an indistinguishable office block defined by its lack, unnoticeable in its lights and sense of uniformity.

Part of what makes A Ghost Story stand out is visuals. The round edged 1:33:1 frame evokes an old picture developed, carrying archival and historical quality. The rounded frame of cinema has become outmoded, recent restorations of silent classics like Man with a Movie Camera (1929) only now expanding the ratio to glimpse the corners of the frame. As Charlie Lyne explores in his video essay Frames and Containers, repurposing the theories of Eisenstein, the cinematic frame can be manipulated beyond anamorphic widescreen across multiple devices, with films like Mommy adopting a 1:1 aspect ratio. As Lowery elaborates in the No Film School interview, he was drawn to 1:33:1 as a “thematic idea”, trapping the ghost “between four walls”. Lowery was inspired by Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold, emphasising the frame’s artificiality in an era of “widescreen televisions”, creating a “built-in frame”. Shooting on the ALEXA Mini, Lowery had the freedom to shoot widescreen, but chose to pillarbox the screen; as he explains on the Vox podcast, he added the vignette in postproduction as a “contextualizing frame”, commenting upon Instagram’s use of filters. As he mentions in No Film School, the “old photographs in my family albums have curved edges”, images he would view at “family gatherings” on a “slide projector”. Lowery’s evocation of the slide harkens back to a photographic trace of memory, tied directly into family history. Lowery’s frame exists beyond aesthetic: in locked off shots, Lowery pays close attention to the horizon, splitting the image into three sections. In 50mm close-ups upon Mara’s face, Palermo creates a sense of both containment and the personal. 

Lowery creates a compelling visual aesthetic, using off-white greys and blues within the hospital to emphasise unease. But Lowery also uses sound to great effect, working with composer Daniel Hart and his band Dark Rooms to create a haunting aural landscape. Hart combines soundscapes of breathing and heartbeats; through the credits, we hear sounds of children and wind. As Lowery mentions in The Verge, Hart wrote the score when the film was “almost completely locked”, with Lowery cutting “without temp music”, interested in not “[hiding] behind [the] score”, instead wanting the film to “[work] on its own terms”. As Lowery mention in the commentary, Hart incorporated vocal elements from Woolf, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Ecclesiastes 9:5.

The powerfully emotive I Get Overwhelmed cuts across the fabric of time and space itself. In the trailer, the song allows the trailer to relay the entire narrative and substance of the film. The young girl hums as she scribbles and writes, emerging seemingly from nothing and carrying through time after her death, with Lowery dubbing the song in the studio following the Sundance premiere. As C and M tour properties, the tune appears again, carrying a spiritual quality, with C drawn to the piano. As we follow C composing and recording, editing on Garageband, we feel M’s emotion tied into song. Placing her headphones on, we contrast two periods of time: the song, played through speakers, and played through headphones. Through sound, Lowery conveys temporal and spatial displacement perfectly.

As I left the cinema, A Ghost Story was an uneasy experience. I was left emotional and confused, in the midst of an existential crisis. Lowery never reminds us of life’s joy, but life’s meaninglessness. Prognosticator’s speech cuts to the core as the film’s thesis statement, with little in the film offering any alternative perspective or debate. By confronting his crisis, Lowery only exacerbates, unable to come to any conclusion. Belief and knowledge are series of mysteries; a film can never adequately confront these issues and form something definitive. A Ghost Story can only prompt something deeper, but A Ghost Story is not the height of examining existentialist thought within cinema.

Advertisements

Alien: Covenant (2017), dir. Ridley Scott

covenant

Ridley Scott has one of the most diverse directorial careers, beginning his career as a set designer on Out of the Unknown (1965-71) and Z-Cars (1962-78), touching seemingly every genre from sci-fi to crime to fantasy epics. Other directors expanded Alien (1979)’s mythology, from Cameron to Fincher to Jeunet, but since Prometheus (2012), Scott has created new worlds, hoping to launch a new prequel franchise alongside other resurrected franchises like Planet of the Apes.

Moving from the USCSS Prometheus to the Covenant, we focus upon a new crew, searching for Origae-6. With 15 crewmembers, Scott avoids centring the narrative with a focal protagonist; like a military unit, all of them are equals. Scott has achieved similar before: in Black Hawk Down (2001), Scott honours the legacy of real soldiers, imbuing each character with a distinct personality or trait, from storybook artist dads to basketball players and coffee drinkers. Covenant has distinctive characters: chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), in his Stetson and love of John Denver’s Country Roads; Oram (Billy Crudup), holding onto his Christian belief; Dany (Katherine Waterson), acting as a modern day Ripley. But we never see our crew bonding, outside of the prologue Last Supper. A group assembles to toast deceased members with a bottle of Jack Daniels, but no one is ever in the same room.

Scott’s group is diverse, including female characters like Faris (Amy Seimetz), Rosenthal (Tess Haubrich), Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Karine (Carmen Ejogo), and people of colour like Lope (Demián Bichir), Cole (Uli Latukefu) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett), yet does little with them. Lope is married to Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), but Scott barely makes their relationship clear. Our characters split into different crews, some remaining in orbit like Tenessee, Ricks and Upworth, others covering different parts of the planet. Our characters are marked for death, sensing their mortality from the opening, following grisly fates from combusting bodies to infections to attacks by Neomorphs, Facehuggers and Chestbursters, without end.

It feels like a morality tale: like the crew of the Prometheus, seeking secrets of God and the universe, those that seek out what they must not know are doomed to die. Covenant is a colonisation narrative: our protagonists look upon the planet’s wheat and hospitable atmosphere and see resources, a new paradise to move forward and grow, and build their log cabin, surveying the landscape with cameras and rovers. Filming in Fiordland, New Zealand, Scott creates an unnerving yet beautiful natural topography of trees and rocks, evoking the landscape of North America, a forest to get lost in beyond the Icelandic and Scottish vistas of Prometheus. Nature treads a delicate balance, trying to destroy our protagonists as they attempt to penetrate the storms of the ionosphere. Even in death, as 47 colonists are incinerated upon the ship, coffins sent out into space, we remain aware of space’s inhospitality and silence, their bodies likely to burn up, final destination unknown. Ledward (Ben Rigby) lights a cigarette, blowing smoke rings, affects the planet’s microbial life at a scale far beyond comprehension. Scott zooms in, spores collecting within his ear.

Using horror elements, Scott increases the film’s body horror and gore. Ledward’s body self-cannibalises itself: the alien existing within us, not an external threat, evoking Shaw’s fear of pregnancy in Prometheus. Quarantined in the med-bay, we experience Ledward’s violent convulsions as blood emerges from his back, the Neomorph within him. In a shower sex scene between Ricks and Upworth, the alien becomes almost phallic, emerging as an appendage, increasing an unnerving bodily distress. Scott’s use of body horror is perhaps the film’s most exciting aspect, yet his conventional use of the Neomorphs in the final act is far less engaging, becoming a generic threat attacking the wing of the ship. However, Scott remains able to create an unnerving, claustrophobic ‘base under siege’, following Dany through the corridors in first-person camera, aided by the unease of Jed Kurzel’s score.

Covenant owes a debt to an entire history of science fiction cinema, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). David (Michael Fassbender) acts as HAL embodied within the consciousness of David Bowman, uneasily inhuman in his high intelligence. In the opening scene, taught by Weyland (Guy Pearce), David gazes upon a statue of Michelangelo’s David, his namesake; looks upon a painting of the Nativity; rehearses a piano piece of Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla. The white room reflecting the planet’s surface seems almost endless, outside time, like the neoclassical bedroom combining anachronistic artistic styles in 2001’s conclusion. David’s cultural knowledge is artificially constructed, carrying no personality, reciting verses of Ozymandias (1818) yet revealing traces of artificiality as he confuses Byron with Shelley.

David develops a nihilistic god complex, telling Weyland that he as a human will die, whilst David will live. David must protect the planet’s landscape from humanity’s intervention, akin to HAL’s murder of Poole, forcing Dany into stasis. Weyland’s creator is unknown, just as humanity’s creators, but David becomes his own creator, moving the legacy of the Xenomorphs forward as he freezes a pair of embryos upon the ship.

In the opening scenes, Scott’s slow movement introducing the vessel reminds us of 2001’s model work, framed as an orchestral spectacle of humanity’s achievement. As our 2000 colonists lie in hibernation upon the ship’s 7 year mission, we’re reminded of the endless rows of frozen bodies in 2001, as Dany’s husband Branson (James Franco), the ship’s captain, is incinerated alive within his own capsule in the whirr of warning sounds. Covenant almost belongs to another era of science fiction, balancing the 1970s spacesuits of the original film with modern technology. In its use of nature, art and spirituality, Covenant also owes something to Solaris (1972). In Solaris, Tarkovsky imbued rooms with personality as life is recreated away from home. Scott moves between screens, Dany yearning for the autumn trees of nature, like the opening scenes of Solaris. She mourns for the memory of Branson, recreated in a video of him ascending a mountain, playing on her tablet, just as Solaris reconciled Kris with the memory and hollow recreation of Hari.

Covenant exists upon the legacy of Prometheus, a decade after the events of 2093. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) exists as trace, a hologram, dogtag, grave and photograph, yet never as flesh and blood; Shaw only takes upon a physical presence in the prologue The Crossing. Although Scott is interested in expanding the film’s horror and alien presence, beyond science fiction worldbuilding, he remains interested in the same existential questions that drove Prometheus forward, as Shaw searched for the universe’s holy grail. Scott positions people of faith within a science-oriented world that denies religion’s unanswered questions, creating an interest conflict and dynamic. Dany holds onto her cross as she watches Branson’s video, yet never takes time to pray. Oram hangs onto his faith, speaking of seeing the Devil as a child, feeling ostracised by his own crew as fundamentalist, without reasonable judgement.

David adapts to a new world, draped in long hair and cloak, leading a sheltered, Medieval-esque existence, finding an interest in zoology as he draws sketches of insects, bodies and anatomy. David’s android form becomes contrasted by Walter, a new model with an American affectation, marked by difference. In the opening sequences, we’re introduced to Walter casually, walking through the ship’s corridors in a hoodie. Walter has been built for servitude, less complex and without sense memory, without sleep, one of an infinite series of identical versions of himself. David becomes a mentor for Walter, teaching him how to play the flute like cigarette papers, concealing his emotional manipulation.

Covenant continues upon Prometheus’ worldbuilding, creating an immersive science fiction world that continues to ask questions. As David recites Ozymandias, we witness the mass genocide of the people who came before, reduced to petrified corpses that the crew of the Covenant must walk upon. In the darkness of the world, the pillars of old empires remain, within the neoclassical architecture of the temple. Though the black pools of the Engineers might seem abstract, Scott creates a world of ideas that only build this franchise further. Covenant is only a step along the way: in the film’s final scene, we move towards a new mission and a new world, as our protagonists continue to seek out Origae-6. The Alien franchise still has new stories to tell. As the vessel moves forwards, to Kurzel’s hopeful score and Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla, we have a new destination.

Personal Shopper (2016), dir. Olivier Assayas

personalshopper

Kristen Stewart is a joke, forever defined by her stilted acting in Twilight (2008). Twilight is what it is: an adaptation of a YA novel, spanning several fanfic erotic sequels not featuring Kristen Stewart in the Fifty Shades (2014-present) series. Stewart started out as a child actress, appearing in masterpieces like The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000). Every child actor has an interesting path. Elle Fanning grew up to be one of the greatest teenage actors around. Macaulay Culkin became Macaulay Culkin. Elijah Wood grew up to be that weird guy in Spy Kids 3-D (2003), Frodo, a serial killer and Dirk Gently’s friend.

Stewart isn’t going to win any Oscars any time soon. But Assayas proves she’s capable, lifting her out of American cinema into French cinema. Casting an American lead, Assayas sacrifices none of his film’s reality in favour of commercial intent, never breaching the film’s internal world. Maureen exists as outsider, with a diasporic American identity. Working for Kyra, she never fits into the Parisian world, with her old knitted sweaters or addiction to her cellphone. As a personal shopper, Maureen is continually alone, absorbing other people’s identities in shallowness and materialism, spending thousands of euros on clothes that aren’t hers. She follows her late brother Lewis’ French lifestyle because of a pact they made. As she tries on a sparkly dress, Maureen is caught between taking an identity which isn’t hers and the sheer joy of rebellion.

Personal Shopper captures a sense of modern job insecurity and globalisation. Maureen’s boyfriend, Gary, works in the Middle East, seen only through Skype calls. Maureen must travel across Europe between London and Milan, never able to enjoy travel. It’s a job, but never a rewarding one. In a film like Only God Forgives (2013), Ryan Gosling’s insertion into Thailand’s culture as an expat felt forced, as though our only way to relate is through a white figure. Here, cultural conflict is central to the narrative. 

Personal Shopper’s genre is difficult to classify. In part, it is a horror film. As Maureen explores Kyra’s apartment, it becomes a haunted house, like the gothic horror of the 1800s or a female-centric film like The Innocents (1961). Personal Shopper avoids representing its ghosts as the goofy cartoons of Ghostbusters (1984), but returns a sense of the unknown beyond clichés. Assayas’ ghosts are a spectre and trace of the past, an invisible presence caught between two realms of existence not immediately discernible. Assayas avoids the well-trodden tropes of gusts of wind or slamming doors, never falling for jump scares.

Maureen carries a self-awareness of the genre she exists within, akin to the awareness of genre trappings in films like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Maureen wants to be a strong, independent woman, telling her invisible stalker she hates horror films, where the helpless female character must avoid a male murderer. As she finds the body in the apartment, covered in blood, Maureen must embody this role, caught between the fear of the messages and her own independence. The camera moves through the corridors of the hotel as though in Steadicam, like the eeriness of the Overlook in The Shining (1980). As she is questioned by police, devolving into a cliché of the detective genre, Maureen finds these roles inescapable.

Personal Shopper’s horror is not in its ghosts or serial killers, but in its technology. Cinema, after all, is technology in itself. Often, films like Unfriended (2014) and Cyberbully (2015) have tried to tap into the internet as horror, failing to feel realistically terrifying, playing paranoia entirely ineffectively. Technology is so ingrained within our everyday life it feels difficult to critique without sounding out-of-touch or conservative. But technology is something we should be skeptical of, thanks to writers like Evgeny Morozov and documentarians like Adam Curtis. Technology has restructured social interaction, political engagement, working life, the news industry and so on, placing big data within corporations and governments. Anti-terrorism and internet security adverts may seem melodramatic, yet there are genuine fears.

I cannot control my phone. As I type up my notes for this review, Google voice command activates out of nowhere. Trying to listen to The Eclipse Viewer, it lowers the volume to 0. It skips to the next episode. My phone calls home, with no reason why.

Assayas tries to capture how overwhelming this all is. As Maureen attempts to relax and sketch, she’s interrupted by the blare of Gary on Skype, unable to ignore. In one scene, she attempts to ask a question, caught between a multi-person business call. There is no escape.

In his excellent video essay Smartphones in Cinema and TV – A Missed Opportunity?, Luís Azevedo questions how smartphones affects narrative and cinematic form, creating a sense of distance beyond our instinct to present text messages as a visual aesthetic as utilised by series like Sherlock (2010-present). Rather than embed technology in the frame, in the desktop documentary form used by video essayists like Kevin B. Lee, Assayas shows us technology as something we see on a screen through our own eyes. Assayas never aestheticises, but shows Gary’s Skype call continually breaking up.

Maureen’s iPhone, an everyday object, becomes something she fears. Like the emotionless computer voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Maureen receives texts from a stranger, conveying no emotion in their delivery to discern tone or meaning. Assayas never attempts to speed this process up, creating sheer tension out of sending and reception.

As she questions who is sending the texts – a friend, the ghost of Lewis? – Assayas never reveals the sender. In its anonymity, the phone receives new power. Maureen experiences the fears of many women – unwanted texts, stalkers, creepers sending dickpics – becoming a psychological fear. The sender pretends to be in the same space as her on the Eurostar, with nothing saying otherwise. But her curiosity must be met. In London, trying her dress on, Maureen instinctively grabs the phone. Her boundaries break down: she sends the sender a photo of her in the dress, an artificial sense of trust built through repetition.

Assayas uses technology in an expository function, to explain information. The phone becomes a manifestation of Maureen’s internal monologue, in anxieties and desires, becoming a voice on her shoulder telling her to try Kyra’s dress on. The phone becomes her closest confidant, to sleep beside and voice her thoughts to, as though the words will dissipate with no tangible connection to the real world. Technology is a tool: we see Maureen’s process of researching Hilma af Klint on her phone on the metro (before buying a physical art book), or watching a 1960s TV movie about Victor Hugo’s spiritualism on YouTube after her friend’s suggestion. Assayas connects these scenes, as the video plays on with no temporal or spatial constraints, moving between locations. Rather than unnecessary quirk, these elements become essential to advancing the narrative.

Assayas uses these technological mediums to connect us to our understanding of spiritualism. Spiritualism is directly tied to advancement of technology, through the party tricks that emerged with the advancement of electrical telegraphy in the 1850s. Assayas moves beyond the crystal balls, Ouija boards and campy horror to ground Maureen and her brother Lewis as mediums within our contemporary context, helping us understand spiritualism as a legitimate belief system. Despite the advancement of science and technology, faith and spirituality are going nowhere; they lose none of their power. Religion may seem dead, but it’s not.

Recently, I lost a friend.

I only met him a few times. But it still affects me; I must still come to terms with it, and question where his soul resides now. Assayas captures a search for meaning in the aftermath of a death. Maureen’s relationship with Lewis, dying of a heart condition they both share, creates a symbiotic blood tie between the two. Maureen follows in his footsteps, carrying an innate sense of her own mortality as she reconciles her beliefs, even in weakness. She holds onto the smallest chance, because it is a chance. Assayas depicts her desire to find peace and faith, yet no answers are forthcoming. Her friend attempts to swiftly get over the loss of Lewis, finding a new boyfriend, but we see an unspoken sense of repression: she can’t come to terms with his passing, even though she tries to.

Assayas’ ghostly spectre is at its most powerful here. Through a breaking glass, we infer a ghostly presence. Maureen tries to find scientific justification, surmising the glass broke some other way. But she knows her instinct is true. In the final scene, Maureen travels to the Middle East, and is haunted once more. In the film’s final lines, she asks:

Is it you, Lewis? Or is it just me?

The film fades to white (as opposed to black), as Assayas gives no answer.

Raw (2016), dir. Julia Ducournau

raw-poster

Universal seem to be undergoing a horror renaissance, thanks to some surprising hits by Blumhouse – Split, a not terrible M Night Shyamalan film, whilst Get Out, produced on a budget of $5 million and making over $150 million at the box office, has shown issues of race and privilege can be explored to large audiences. Where other studios rely on tentpoles, Universal latches on to other voices, like Andrea Arnold and Jeff Nichols, and, apparently, a French film from a first-time director, shown in Cineworlds across the country. Perhaps the horror film, in light of other international hits like Ringu (1998), is best at crossing cultural boundaries.

Raw is many things – a horror film, cannibalism film, coming of age film. Cinema struggles to depict university experience, presented as continuum, identical to adult life or high school life, rarely occupying a space in-between. In Boyhood (2014), university represents optimism as an endpoint to youth, whilst in Starter for 10 (2006), the conflict of university is reduced to a TV gameshow. Meanwhile, the CW teenager exists as unrealistically hot or unrealistically sexual, having experiences most people in their 20s never have. But university is complex, a period of identity formation and personal growth. Through first year, my entire self changed: changing priorities and interests, new bonds; I came to terms with my asexuality and, unlike Justine’s journey, I stopped eating meat. But I had to go through a lot of shit to get there. Raw reveals university for what it actually is: institutionalised initiations and hazings, used to justify physical harm and sexual assault; freshers pressured with alcohol and sexuality and no choice but to conform, whilst lecturers openly favour certain students whilst disregarding others.

The veterinary school of Raw is a construct: as she tells Little White Lies, Ducournau sought the concrete, brutalist image of the major campuses of American universities than French campuses. The film seeps of style: bloodbaths, paint-drenched sex, parties in abandoned buildings, neon clubbing, an electro soundtrack. Ducournau uses long takes, throwing the audience into a car crash on a road or the campus’ students walking around early in their PJs with little prior context. Yet Raw carries a degree of authenticity: Ducournau is a young, first time director, not someone twice her age looking back nostalgically. Garance Marillier brings youth to Justine: cast into the unknown, about to graduate high school and go to college herself, unable to invoke personal experience.

Ducournau speaks to a specific experience: a female perspective, reclaiming the dudebro masculinity of films like Animal House (1978). For Ducournau, to invoke the female gaze is an “instant reflex”; unlike the rape scenes of Elle, where female sexuality is presented through male perspective. Raw is filled with naked bodies: Justine’s underwear, her naked chest as her body is under attack by a rash, showering, pissing on the roof with Alexia; the casual freedom of clubbing, as bodies become more exposed. But Ducournau refuses to titillate, avoiding the eroticism of Brian De Palma. In one scene, Justine, adorned with dress and lipstick, makes out with her own reflection, as we hear the lyrics:

First seduction lesson:

Be an educated slut

Make fun of boys

Ride ‘em like horses

Find oral sex amusing

Just don’t call it

But when it comes down to it:

Be the best at it!

As Ducournau points out in a Q&A with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the song is by feminist sisters Orties, taking clichés of rap and “mak[ing] it their own”, treating men the way “men talk about women”. In a broader sense, Raw does the same. Justine undergoes rites of passage, entering the film virginal and innocent, having never eaten flesh, or tasted human flesh; she’s even smoking cigarettes by the end. As Ducournau acknowledges to Little White Lies, “losing your virginity is unfortunately always associated with something very sacred, very important.” Sexuality never becomes romantic, grounded in friendships and needs, animalistic as extension of cannibalistic desire. When Justine is pressured to fuck a stranger during a party, we see her hesitation. Ducournau abstracts this sexuality, bathing both in yellow and green paint as though it were an experimental art piece, yet speaks to the reality of our culture of coercion.

Justine’s cannibalistic relationship with her sister Alexia feels like a trope, evoking the vampiric sisterhood of Byzantium (2013), the lesbianism of Carmilla (1872), or as Ducournau points out in a Q&A, the classical sibling rivalries of Biblical stories and Grecian myths. We don’t learn their relationship immediately: we’re introduced to Justine in the car with her parents, deploying information gradually before learning of Alexia’s cannibalism. Indeed, Alexia wasn’t Justine’s sister within early drafts, yet sisterhood brings an unconditional blood bond beyond expositional friendship conflicts, with a lifelong history to a time before.

Alexia, as older student and sibling, pressures Justine to conform: follow hazing rituals, go clubbing, drink heavily, have sex. Alexia encourages Justine to perform to the male gaze: she can’t just wear jeans and a t-shirt, must wear a dress, bathe herself in make-up, “Brazilian” any sign of vaginal hair. In the process of transformation to cannibalism, Justine asserts her sexual autonomy: it’s her vagina, not to be circumcised, slicing off Alexia’s finger with a pair of scissors in the process.

Justine’s relationship with her roommate Adrien is more complex, complicated by his friendship with Alexia. Adrien introduces himself to Justine with his homosexuality, using university as his sexual liberation after twenty years in the closet; within minutes of his introduction, he’s making out with a dude whilst clubbing. Later, Justine returns home at night, walking in on Adrien receiving oral. But this isn’t treated as a joke; Justine closes the door, as he whimpers on, still tempted to listen in.

Ducournau invokes Adrien as an identifying character that refuses a heteronormative male gaze, disallowing us a proxy for sexual gaze to Justine’s sexuality. As she points out in the Q&A, were Adrien presented as heterosexual, the viewer would perceive a sexual tension within their relationship. Justine and Adrien do have sex, highlighting the complicated nature of their relationship and perceptions around homosexuality: flexible, or as though it doesn’t “count” because he lacks attraction. But needs and desires transcend genders, identities and labels, just as asexuals can have sex without attraction. Adrien jerks off to porn, then makes a mistake to satisfy her needs over his own. Where does friendship begin and sexuality end? Justine becomes enraptured by sex, whilst Adrien repeatedly tells her to stop, explaining his issues to her the next morning in class.

To have sexuality this complicated is refreshing. My sexual identity in first year seems completely apart from my identity now: questioning my homosexuality and attraction to other genders; feeling obligated to have sex, whilst dismissed for not wanting to when everyone around me seemed to be screwing; drunkenly sleeping with people I should never have seen in the first place. Adrien and Justine eventually go back to each other, because sexuality is never simple.

Using cannibalism to explore issues of female identity and sexuality draws parallels to The Neon Demon, where cannibalism acts as metaphor for how ideals of beauty (literally) eats one alive. But cannibalism inescapably ends up asking questions; in The Lost City of Z, cannibalism becomes associated with the primitivism, whilst The Hills Have Eyes (1977) invokes similar imagery. Cannibalism asks questions of where we set our socially accepted rules. If it’s okay to eat chicken eggs, why isn’t it acceptable to eat human uteruses? If animal flesh is okay, why isn’t human? Are we truly ordained by God with dominion? Justine asks similar questions based on her vegetarianism, before the upbringing constructed by her parents unravels. Her conversion is gradual: pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney during initiation; stealing a burger from the lunch counter; eating shawarma with Adrien, as though it were the postcredits scene to The Avengers (2012).

Raw reveals the horror of life as a veterinary student, and, by extension, ethical questions of animal testing and the meat industry. Is Justine eating a human cadaver in the morgue at a party or finger food as though it were a chicken leg the real horror? Ducournau is confrontational, using long takes to reveal cows and horses treated as objects to be killed and dissected; taxidermied animals displayed in basements; the family dog put down for fear of developing a taste for human flesh.

Justine’s journey is inversion, using conversion to carnivorism as metaphor. The first time my revulsion to meat manifested, I was drunk. Sat in an unreputable fast food place past midnight with raving socialists, some film about communism in an Eastern European country playing in the background on late night television. A visceral moment and memory: eating meat without any semblance of sustenance, for the sake of eating. This was my shawarma scene, though it took me many months to decide completely.

Raw may have its share of horror tropes, like the creepy old guy in hospital the night after Alexia’s accident, yet the greatest horror comes from our own reality. Raw speaks to our realities of sexuality, university life and the animal industry where it exists within the echelons of the greatest of coming-of-age films.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977), dir. Wes Craven

hills

Back in 2014, I fell in love with movies one degree further. I ended up scouring YouTube for old films, and burned through a ridiculous number of films in the space of a couple of months. I came across numerous films over this period: like this one, and other Arrow titles like Society (1989). But I wasn’t enjoying films; it was a background distraction, and I never gave these films the attention I was supposed to. Masterpieces became mediocre. Mediocrity became masterpieces. Watching The Hills Have Eyes in HD, rather than in some shitty 240p illegal upload, I was interested to see how my opinion of the film would improve.

But somehow, it got worse.

The Hills Have Eyes looks terrible, drenched in grain. It deserves to be seen in some grindhouse cinema that smells like a backalley that closed 40 years ago, displayed on a scratch-ridden 16mm print.

Cannibalism has often been a subject for the horror film: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Delicatessen and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), even The Neon Demon (2016). But The Hills Have Eyes never manages to communicate the horror of it, or the pleasures of the horror film to the audience. We never get to see human flesh reduced to the bone. The man on the poster with the deformed head casts a looming, terrifying figure, yet he is never able to become something terrifying in the film itself.

The film hinges upon its characters as a joke, and a sense of dramatic irony. The girl who jokes about becoming a human french fry. The barking dog, who has more of a sense of something out of the ordinary than the humans themselves. The caricature of the Christian mother who begs for them to pray to God before they go into the desert – in case something happens to them. Perhaps Wes Craven is defined by his stereotypes, a notion he would deconstruct in Scream (1996).

Perhaps the film is at its most interesting in its base concept of strangers in a desert and its primordial, devolved tribal cannibals, stripped from their humanity with carnivorous teeth, yet the film never does anything interesting with them. The essay in the booklet paints the film as the last political horror film, seeped within the nuclear age and post-Watergate paranoia – but these flourishes are scarcely there.

Beyond some cheap exploitation, the film cannot recapture the same sense of the unwatchable, truly sickening sense of fear that The Last House on the Left (1972) was able to capture.

The Neon Demon (2016), dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

neon

I was never especially taken with Drive (2011). Though Drive is a good film, behind the stylistic Refn flourishes was a fairly conventional masculine revenge narrative. Yet The Neon Demon has a distinctive voice. Of course, there’s still neon and synth, and in some ways, it’s a story that has been told a million times.

There are elements of the coming of age story – feeling comfortable with one’s self, sexuality turned into competition, rejecting people who were once everything (like her friend Dean, or the fact Jesse’s motel life cuts her off from her parents’ memory.) The story is basically Mean Girls (2004) – a young, teenage girl is pressured to be something she isn’t, resulting in jealousy and catfights.

But the film is far more than this – more metaphorical, magical, stylistic – that it starts to resemble a music video. A cougar can walk through a motel room, but we don’t question the logistics of its zoo escape. Ruby can look after a massive, extravagant house that could easily be a stage for a music video, yet we don’t question who she knows, or who could ever afford it. Rooms shift from red to blue lighting – this is the reality the film lives in. Triangular symbols appear, flashing on screen like the recurring symbol of an artist’s new album; the stage is an unreality of strobe lights. Even the film’s closing credits resemble a music video: mixing overhead shots of beaches,  as we see the back of a woman walking in the desert, the song plays on whilst liquid colour envelopes each naked model. It never breaks this ‘reality’ into scrolling credits or funny outtakes.

Refn tries to find space in the divide between high and low culture, whether these distinctions matter at all. Many of the film’s concepts are ostensibly ludicrous, straight out of the worst of the ‘video nasties’, banned by the BBFC until the next century – cannibalism, blood showers, necrophilia, rampant lesbianism, Brian De Palma-esque phallic knifes – yet Refn ties these lowbrow concepts with a complex study of the human condition and a woman’s place in the modelling industry.

But the film is also Refn’s love letter to his wife, Liv; during the closing credits, he dedicates the film to her. In interviews, Ref  has said the film’s concept came from when he realised he “wasn’t born beautiful and my wife was.” The film is speculation – alongside his female cowriters, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, Refn is trying to understand the pressures young women face, and in particular, the pressure his wife faces. This is what the best of both filmmaking and film viewing should try to do – challenge viewpoints.

In another way, the modelling industry becomes a stand-in for every other industry. Refn knows the struggles of the filmmaking industry firsthand, and the difficulty financing Pusher (1996) and its sequels; as has his wife, who acted in some of his films. Keanu Reeves’ role as Hank, asking his underage actresses to strip naked (one of the few male characters in the film, along with Dean and the motel owner), could easily be a stand-in for Refn’s power as a director. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, the industry eats you alive. Women become identical bodies, chosen on the slightest of differences – like the process of auditioning actresses. Note that Jesse’s success comes from her trying to go against the presupposed assumption of finding artificial beauty in plastic surgery to meet the industry’s standard. Yet her desire to fit in becomes her downfall, an auteur consumed by the mainstream.

Even the most trustworthy characters can’t be trusted. Hank doesn’t seem trustworthy, but Ruby positions herself as a friend to Jesse, until she destroys that trust by almost raping her. Trust has dissipated into allegations of mistreatment and sexual abuse.

The film breathes in its silences and stillness. Drive also used silence a lot, but it feels even more appropriate here. Filmmaking is about silence – waiting around on set until called; seeing a performance repeated for the 20th time without falling asleep. Women stand still as if they are only one angle, aiming to be beautiful and photogenic – yet beauty in the camera is different to beauty in reality, as is beauty on Photoshop. In the establishing shot of the studio, it is not only the women who are still – it is also the photographer and the editor, touching up an image of a woman in tandem to it being taken, living within the monotony of moving the mouse around the screen.

The farcical idea that women are held to this same pressure to beauty in death is just as real. When Ruby applies make-up to corpses, this is exactly how we treat the dead – making them look pretty so a family can see their loved one how they remember them. We continue to hold up women who tragically died young as sex symbols, like Marilyn Monroe: picturing them in their beauty – not when they were at their lowest.

But these are also universal themes. I never felt pressures as bad as women, or particularly models, feel it – but my high school years were filled with anxiety over how I dressed, my hair, my attractiveness; unrealistic aims of the perfect boyfriend and lots of sex. I don’t feel it quite as badly now – but these anxieties haven’t gone away completely.