Rated R. Running Time 1 hour 45 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 3; Sex 1; Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
In director/writer Olivier Assayas’ film American Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has reason to be envious of her German employer Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten) an excruciatingly demanding supermodel with her own designer label. As the woman’s personal shopper and assistant, Maureen is sent racing on her motorbike all around Paris to pick up high couture dresses and diamond jewelry Kyra plans to wear at fashion events. In stark contrast to the high fashion garments she carries, she almost always dresses in the same old jeans and leather jacket, her hair hidden by her biker’s helmet. Her employer spends more time traveling round Europe than at her luxurious apartment, so Maureen has started bunking overnight at the digs and trying on some of the gowns, even though Kyra has expressly forbidden her to do so.
Maureen herself is alone in Paris because her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin) has accepted a techie job in Oman, the two sporadically keeping in touch via Skype. She is grieving over the death of her twin brother Lewis a few months earlier. Both had been mediums and had made a pact that whoever died first would attempt to contact the other. She also is afflicted with the disease that killed her brother, a serious heart disorder.
The film begins with Maureen being dropped off by Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), her brother’s ex-girlfriend, at the old mansion Lewis had bought in the hope of turning it into a carpentry workshop. She hears noises during the night, and we see a smoke-like apparition, but nothing definite. “Lewis?” she calls out at one point. The next morning, she says, “You must make contact.”
As the story progresses, Maureen grows bolder in transgressing her employer’s rules, even donning a gorgeous gown one night and masturbating in her boss’s huge bed. She meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra’s kept boyfriend, and encounters a female spirit, very angry over something. Perhaps the creepiest sequence is a series of text messages she receives during her trip on Eurostar to London on still another errand for Kyra. (The woman travels so much that we see her just one time with Maureen.) The texter apparently has been watching her for some time and asks a series of personal questions, becoming demanding whenever she hesitates to reply. As a viewer, I felt almost as unsettled as Maureen, the texts become threatening. Though prepared for something unpleasant to happen, Maureen’s stumbling upon a body lying in a pool of blood is especially shocking. Her hesitant answers to a detective place her under suspicion for a while.
Mr. Assayas proves to be a master at mixing genres so that we are almost always kept wondering, indeed, kept in tense suspense, as to what will happen next. The first part of the film is a ghost story, with the usual creepy old house, mysterious sounds, a lone woman searching through it, and even a spectral appearance. It becomes a thriller during the texting sequence, this time the audience wondering about the identity of the manipulative texter and what are his motives (presumably sinister). Then the film becomes a horror/murder mystery, with perhaps Maureen being manipulated into stumbling upon the victim’s body. And also, a psychological study exploring the intertwining of the supernatural and the real in the mind of a young woman whose physical illness contributes to what might or might not be a mental disorder.
I was so intrigued by the German song sung by Marlene Dietrich during the erotic scene in which Maureen is trying on one of Kyra’s fabulous dresses that I Googled it. The song is “Das Hobellied,” translated as “The Planing Song.” the title referring to a carpenter’s plane. A couple of times we see Maureen in her brother’s carpentry shop using a plane to shape a table leg. The song’s first verse ends with the couplet, “The most ardent man is too much too rich :/Fate sets the plane, And planes everything equal.” (The crude translation is arrived at by using Google’s “translator.”) This film is so surprising, and ambiguous in so many ways, that I am not sure at all what it is about—perhaps not envying the rich because the leveling (or planing) power of death will even things out, or…? I know I missed Maureen’s last few words before the fade to black, so my failure to hear her mumbled words is a factor in not comprehending. If any of you catch the words, I would appreciate your letting me know. Despite this, the film is an engrossing journey into fear and suspense, one that I am glad I made. If you do not want everything neatly wrapped up and explained at the end, I highly recommend that you take the same journey.
This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.