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Psychics, Sadness and Mystery in Assayas’ Personal Shopper

Published April 6, 2017 by rmpixie

Personal Shopper (2016, 1 hr, 45 mins.)

 

It’s no surprise that death is devastating for those in mourning. Missing loved ones who have passed on comes in many forms but most of us would confidently say that faith (or lack thereof) aside, we don’t really know what happens to our soul after the physical body ends. In Personal Shopper, we see one woman’s struggle with the death of her twin brother and her belief in the afterlife. It brings to light deeper questions about life and death staged before the backdrop of Paris, the fashion world, and its trappings.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works for a self-centered celebrity and socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) as a personal shopper. Her job is to find the latest and greatest in high fashion and bring it back to her famous employer since her high profile makes it impossible to shop anonymously. Maureen has also recently lost her twin brother Lewis to a heart defect she also suffers from. His surviving partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) wants to sell their house, but Maureen who is a medium, insists that Lewis will send her a sign from beyond, so she spends a few nights in his crumbling house waiting for him to appear. He was a medium like her, so her determination is fueled by his once stronger psychic abilities and their vow to make contact from the other side. When she does contact the spirit world, she also receives mysterious text messages topped off with an unexpected murder that stops her in her tracks. Maureen’s quest for answers becomes more confusing, leaving her in a state of shock and floundering for answers.

Kristin Stewart as Maureen waiting for a sign.

Personal Shopper is a horror, a film noir, a psychological thriller, and a ghost story. It is all of the above and none of the above at the same time, embracing and defying genre. Director Olivier Assayas created a film that’s in a class of its own using art, history and old school paranormal beliefs with 21st century technology and lifestyles to illustrate Maureen’s search for her brother’s spirit. It’s this artistic take that kept me riveted despite the slow burn pace.

Assayas captures Maureen’s loss well, and he also conveys the loneliness of this technological age we live in with Skype and smartphones being key methods with which she communicates. Even when she is with someone physically or electronically, she is separate, guarded, or unsure; from her shopping excursions to her Skype dates with her boyfriend. The smart phone as a thing of necessity in this day and age to stay tethered to this world also becomes an agent of isolation and intense paranoia when Maureen pleads with a nameless messenger behind the texts to reveal themselves.  Assayas takes a now commonplace device and gives it a more otherworldly, sinister presence.

Personal Shopper is also a lesson in how Maureen grieves. She throws herself into her work even though she flat out hates her fashionable job, but Paris is her main connection to her dead brother so she stays there as she waits for a ghostly sign, not ready to let go.  The world of fashion is a fleeting one; rarely delving deeply into the reality around it. Her psychic abilities seem to be stunted as she moves between posh shops in London and Paris to serve Kyra in this superficial arena. It shows how she herself seems like a spirit as she is lost between real life, the supernatural, the fashion world, and her uncertainty with what she believes and how she is perceived. Her only moment of self-awareness comes when the mysterious messenger asks her to do something forbidden, and she taps all too briefly into her desires in her confused and somewhat desperate state. It’s a strange moment in the film, but it makes sense as her character searches for a right fit, so to speak, in environments that while not hostile, aren’t hospitable to her either.

The look of the film is really beautiful. Yorick Le Saux, the cinematographer for Only Lovers Left Alive, does a wonderful job capturing the contrast of the dingy streets and stark sophistication of Paris. He is skilled at making the most of each setting, representing streetscapes and boutiques in their truest and most tangible forms. For anyone that has visited the City of Lights, you’ll feel nostalgic for its frenzied energy.

My only issue lies with the text messages and some of the ensuing actions asked of Maureen. While I really enjoyed these suspenseful interludes and there is definitely a point to them, they were problematic with some details that still remain unclear when the storyline makes a sharp turn. Stewart’s stellar performance as a tortured, uncertain and lost character written for her by Assayas, evokes a surprising amount of emotion that overshadows any inconsistencies in the narrative however, as you watch this poor soul wait for her brother to tell her something, anything as proof of an afterlife.

Personal Shopper is an artistic take on a ghost story and focuses on one woman’s uncertainty when mortality comes into question. See this film for it’s beautiful photography, a haunting performance from Stewart and an interesting albeit imperfect story about grief and the afterlife.

 

Grace Hallworth and the Oral Traditions of Trinidadian Ghost Stories and Tall Tales

Published February 22, 2017 by rmpixie

Last year, I gained a new co-worker that turned out to be my sister from another mister. We share a lot of similar experiences, good and bad, and also a Trinidadian heritage. When computer glitches made us scream out in frustration, my lovely co-worker would stage whisper “Obeah!”, eliciting uncontrollable giggles from both of us. Obeah is a West Indian term for witchcraft and general supernatural trickery, often thrown into conversation in a West Indian household with a casual knowing, as if every little thing was explained by that one word.

When she brought me a book on folklore from Trinidad, I squealed! Entitled “Mouth Open Story Jump Out” (which basically means you feel free to gossip or tell tales), this book contains all the stories my mother and grandmother used to tell my sisters and I, either to scare us into good behaviour or just freak us out in general. I could once again read about “La Diablesse” or “The Suocouyant”; remembering how frightened I was when the women in my family would recount the “true” stories from the Trinidadian backwoods, otherwise known as “the bush”. This book inspired me to dedicate a post for Black History Month and Women in Horror Month to Grace Hallworth, a Trinidadian storyteller who carries on the tradition of the island’s folktale and ghost stories in both the written and spoken word.

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Hallworth, retired librarian, has a number of children’s books under her belt. Born in Trinidad and moving to England in 1956, her storytelling and writing would honour the tradition of Trinidadian folktales for decades. There isn’t a lot of information on her since she is senior and now resides in a retirement home northwest of London, but she is still active and celebrated within the storytelling community and a great reference for those in the children’s literature and academia world.

Storytelling is ingrained in our human DNA; from the beginning of civilization it has brought us together, connecting us and keeping our traditions and cultures alive through the spoken word, song, dance and pantomime.  It is an exercise in remembering ancestry, entertainment and community in one fell swoop.  In island culture, a simple gathering can result in stories about aunts, uncles, cousins and all the weird and wonderful things they encounter in ” Nancy” stories, a word spawned from the original tall tale figure Anansi, the trickster spider from West African tales.

The stories I remember most were the aforementioned “La Diablesse”, a hoofed woman who leads men astray and “The Suocouyant” an old woman who becomes a ball of light and sucks the blood of humans and animals. I thought about these ominous figures in an abstract way, in the same way a kid thinks about the devil or the boogeyman. These were our boogeymen, or women as the story goes. They were ours and everyone else’s it seems, as these phantoms went by other names across the world, like the Phillipines blood sucker The Aswang and the Succubus who keeps company with The Soucouyant, who in turn shares similarities with the Spook Lights featured in Eden Royce’s collections of Southern gothic horror. Even the Loup Garou, or werewolf, stays the same in France and the West Indies. It never occurred to me then how connected these tales were until I started to write about horror themes critically.

Before each set of stories, Hallworth writes a paragraph or two describing the traits of these entities in the chapter, giving a context to the oral tale. You can see a common thread with the spirits and demons that only makes sense since Trinidad and Tobago are like many Caribbean islands that have a long history of colonization. On top of the indigenous people of the islands, settlers from Europe, Africa, The United Kingdom, South Asia and China came in as well, so there is no wonder that some phantoms share the same traits as their originators back on their home shores.  It’s actually comforting to know that Hallworth worked to validate and document these folktales so that they could stand with their global counterparts in unity as they scare children worldwide.

Hallworth preserves regional dialect or patois, traditions and nostalgia as well as the tales themselves.  Some of the stories provide a moral like be careful what you wish for or living in harmony with the natural world, and some were just meant to scare the bejesus out of you.  It is a feat the can’t be done without some effort, but she takes these oral traditions and commits them to the page with an ease that makes me hear my mother and grandmother’s voices as I read the words. At the very least, it would be a treat to hear Hallworth herself recite these tales, as she will still do from time to time in the English libraries and schools even though she is reportedly in her late 80’s.

As kids become more sophisticated with electronics and adult life readily at their fingertips, it’s comforting to know this little book of Nancy stories persists on library shelves so the original monsters under the bed or at our windows don’t fade away.  I am grateful for Grace Hallworth because it is through her book that I remember my mother (my original woman in horror) and my heritage.  She is a storyteller, writer, children’s author and an honorary woman in horror for preserving these tales.

Grace Hallworth is a patron for The Society of Storytelling in the U.K. and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2016 and 2017.

For a list of all her books, check here.

Face Off Season 11 Episode 4: “Snow Queens”

Published February 16, 2017 by rmpixie

With all the snow burying the Eastern U.S. and Canada in the past week, it was only fair that the all-stars got a taste of the white stuff too this episode!

McKenzie brought winter to L.A. with real snow waiting for the artists as she introduced this week’s Elimination Challenge. Like the Snow Queens from The Chronicles of Narnia and Once Upon a Time, they had to create their own powerful, unique and beautiful queens inspired by a snowflake. The catch was they had two days instead of three to create their looks and they had to find their snowflakes that were buried in the snow surrounding them. Since some of the artists had never seen snow before, they had an impromptu snowball fight after the search, and then got to work.

Logan and Adam loved the shape of their snowflake and decided to bring a Warrior Queen to life. Logan worked on the cowl while Adam fabricated her armour. It was their turn to find a crack in their mold. They wanted to use silicone for their look and decided to still use it despite the crack and instead of the safer polyfoam to keep the integrity of their concept. Logan used a stencil to convey cracked ice, and they presented  a complete look for the reveal stage. Their Snow Queen was beautiful and fierce. The judges loved the tonal differences with the colours and Glen thought it was the best use of stencilling that he had ever seen on the show. Ve loved the profile and the dark lips which brought out her eyes. They were in top looks with Kiva the Amazon Mountain Queen.

George and Cig wanted to paint a frostbitten look directly on the model’s skin and layer silicone on top for an icy effect. Mr. Westmore thought it was an interesting concept, but cautioned them against using dark makeup underneath as it could be distracting, especially on the tip of her nose. George vaccuformed the lab skeleton to create a really cool sceptre with half a skull and spine. They painted the model with blues, purples and greens to create that frostbitten look and it showed up well through the silicone. I thought the face was too much with the icicle effect. The judges felt the jaw was too masculine and didn’t really fit the challenge, however, they were safe.
Niko and Cat were inspired by their snowflake and the Statue of Liberty. They created an Ice Sculpture Queen. Cat would sculpt the hair and Niko would do the brow piece. Mr. Westmore felt the hair would be too heavy unless it was made out of foam latex. They fabricated an ice torch and collar, but the collar proved to be an issue as it bumped up against the sculpted hair and they scrapped it. The look was simple but the judges didn’t like it. They though sculpting hair was a waste of their time, and it was uninspired and too literal with the Statue of Liberty reference. It also didn’t really look like the snowflake they chose. They were in bottom looks.

Tyler and Emily created an Evergreen Ice Queen. Emily sculpted a wooden chest similar to a corset. She paints landscapes for a living so this was familiar territory for her and understood textures. Mr. Westmore suggested doing a wash of paint to pull out the tree bark look in the sculpt. She also created a headband of branches to add to the hair. Their Evergreen Snow Queen in the midst of a thaw wowed the judges. The loved melting effect and Glenn thought the frozen tree aspect was brilliant. Ve loved the colours they used and thought it was movie set ready. Their complex thinking got them into top looks.

Ben and Evan also went with an Evergreen Snow Queen. They struggled with their concept but finally decided on a crystallized look. They also wanted to make her dark, like black ice. Mr. Westmore told them to keep beauty makeup light. They were really behind and had to apply a prosthetic during last looks which is really risky, plus finish their paint job. I liked the headpiece, but the judges thought the look was a misstep. Even thought Neville got the black ice concept, they still thought it was too dark and the chin piece looked like a beard. As luck would have it, they were safe.

Rachel and Gage found a snowflake that looked regal, so they created an Elemental Queen with ice spires. They vaccuformed the spiny pieces and sculpted prosthetics around them. Rachel also incorporated LED lights into the hair. They had to fix the facial prosthetic to even it out, but they created an acceptable look. The judges liked the concept more than the execution, and the beauty makeup could have been better on the character’s eyes, but they were safe.

Keaghlan and Melissa liked the idea of shards of crystals on their queen. They also made icicles but they had to make sure they didn’t look like horns as Mr. Westmore pointed out. They had to paint them silver to match the eyes. In last looks, Keaghlan felt the queen was too androgynous. On the reveal stage, the judges thought the queen’s brow bone was too low. The proportions were too masculine as well. Neville didn’t like the crystals as he felt you couldn’t tell what they were. They were in the bottom looks.

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The winners were Emily and Tyler for their great choices, execution and exquisite character.

The team going home was unfortunately Niko and Cat! They were the cutest, but the judges felt that at this point, one misstep would eliminate you. Ve was quite emotional and told them it was a very difficult decision. The artists were also really upset, but the tiny couple that could weren’t fazed and were determined to carry on with their business and love for their craft.

Sevdaliza’s “Human”: An Unlikely Woman in Horror

Published February 12, 2017 by rmpixie
sevdaliza

Sevdaliza in “Human”

 

 

A screenshot of a woman, her arms stretched out, intrigued me. She had piercing dark eyes, long black hair and was wearing an intricate, bejeweled bra-like contraption that left little to the imagination. “Can you click on that one?,” I asked the horror boyfriend as we cruised different music videos one snowy, Saturday night. And so, he did. What unfolded before my eyes took me down a rabbit hole to a world of danger, sensuality and speculation.

After the strong features of a woman flicker on the screen, a waiter, ebony-skinned, handsome but with an unsettling milky eye, pushes a loaded service tray down a grand hall. He arrives at a viewing gallery populated by well-dressed men. They watch, with a palpable expectancy, the dirt floor of an empty and grand arena below. A cloaked figure descends ornate stairs; it is a woman and she moves with a strong stride into the arena. The men sit stoical but the beads of perspiration betray their stony faces as she turns and slowly drops her cape, facing them. She wears only bejeweled cups covering her breasts and a bejeweled patch between her legs. She gazes back at them calmly, and the camera cuts back to show her full body profile. We see she has the legs of an animal. Strong, hooved legs hold up her body, complimenting her curves as she begins to undulate and sway. Her face is defiant and unsmiling as the men watch, her dance exuding a confidence that conveys fearlessness and sensuality.

Each of the men’s faces show something different in their barely-there expressions. Inklings of lust, fear and fascination play on their brows as the otherworldly woman sways and her jet-black hair swirls around her. She stops and stares back at them again, while the waiter seems to watch her as if he is waiting for a cue. She lowers her head, her eyes telling a story all at once: strength, rage, and again defiance. It is here that the video and the song end abruptly, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

The song that accompanies the video is called “Human”. The woman who sings it and performs in the video is Sevdaliza, an Iranian-born, Netherlands-based electronic artist who, while being somewhat new to the music scene, has blown up with her hypnotic sound. She works with producer Mucky and with 2 EPS out, will finally be releasing her album sometime this year.

With such a unique concept, I was struck by the fantasy-horror aspect right off the bat. While she has not claimed any allegiance to horror to my knowledge, she is an unlikely woman in horror with this tension building 3-minute clip. Her mythical character is very close to the Deer Woman, a Native American spirit who can be vengeful to men bearing ill intent to women. Her seductive dance is the last thing a corrupt man will see before she kills him.

This vision also struck me as an extremely important video for many reasons. First, I think some may find the video objectifies with this basically nude, fantastical woman dancing for an audience of men. I would argue that this is actually the opposite. She is strong, she is defiant and she is celebrating her body. I also embrace the implied horror that unfolds. To me, she is in league with the waiter as they exchange knowing looks at the very end. Perhaps she has lured them because of their wrong-doings and seeks to dole out her vengeance, much like the Deer Woman.  Perhaps they have elected to die by her hand, a penance for their evil past.

She includes a quote to accompany the video, “The basic human need to be watched was once satisfied by God.” It’s from a video game, Deus Ex based on a dystopian world made up of secret societies and artificial intelligence.  It’s a quote from Morpheus, a self-aware A.I. character, and goes on to end with, “Now, the same functionality can be replicated with data-mining algorithms.” Morpheus is apparently referring to the vanities of humans, and our need to dominate and control everything we touch.  Named after the Greek god of dreams who would bring messages to mortals from the gods, you can only speculate what Sevdaliza meant with this quote.  Is this dancer in a future world, created for the whims of these seemingly moneyed men for their male gaze and now she has a mind of her own? The theories are dizzying in their numbers, so one can only speculate.  At any rate, she looks like she is about to do some major damage to this gallery of patriarchy, but it is left up to our imaginations the ominous horror that awaits them.

The video was directed by Emmanuel Adjei, who works with Sevdaliza often. His beautiful vision is tinted with sepia tones and the visual effects are seamless-the stuff of feature films.  I would love to see what this dancer has planned, but the same time, I enjoy wanting more without a payoff. This is the crux of the clip. Everyone, from the waiter to the dancer, is waiting in intense anticipation for something, and it seems we will never know what. The desire that comes from the men, also comes from her. The difference is she isn’t afraid to show hers, embracing the animal half of herself.

The song itself is could be called an anthem for those suffering from the effect of current events. The words to the song are simple and effective:

I am flesh, bones

I am skin, soul

I am human

Nothing more than human

 

One could take the song as a plea for understanding or a rallying cry for the oppressed as they break through the chains of judgement.

The next stanza is intriguing:

It’s passing me by

Been in and out

And in front of my judgmental eyes

My precious disguise

Business so cold

Can’t cope with my own

How to not fail

In my interpretation, it appears she has become weary of hiding her true nature; tired of being seen as different or a thing and now seeking retaliation. It’s extremely telling of what could happen (and already is with all the protests and upheavals) if things continue to escalate within the U.S. political sphere. Sevdaliza, however, won’t reveal the meaning of her art, leaving it up to the viewer and listener to find their own truth.

Being Iranian, Sevdaliza has announced that she will not be travelling to the United States due to the political climate, and rightfully so. The travel ban will go down in history as yet another attempt for supremacy, and with it the call for a show of real humanity. Trump has shown his true colours, and it is evident minute by minute that he brings true terror.

With all the real world horror going on, this song comes at the right time and it couldn’t be more perfectly represented. What do you think? Does it objectify, divide, or show a woman’s strength despite her environment? Is she victim or victor? Was she a creation that has now gone rogue? You decide, because apparently there is no wrong answer in her eyes.

 

The video is up for an Edison Music Award (a Dutch music award) and you can find her at the following links:

http://www.sevdaliza.com/

https://www.facebook.com/sevdalizamusic

https://twitter.com/sevdaliza

http://emmanueladjei.com/

While researching mythologies from other cultures, I couldn’t find any other comparative deities or spirits from the Middle East aside from ancient Greek ones such as Pan and satyrs and the Native American Deer Woman.  Her legend is documented here;

And read my review of AKOÓ! that played at the ImagiNATIVE Film Festival 2016 for Cinema Axis. It features a similar mythical figure called the Caribou Woman that kills men who put women in danger here.

 

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