Two popular Cannes ‘16 alums have recently seen the light of day with stateside theatrical releases, one going on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the other debuting to critical acclaim and rave reviews for its star. While on the surface it might be difficult to discern much similarity between them, I found, on recent viewing, that there’s much more there upon further reflection. Olivier Assayas’ Kristen Stewart headlined Personal Shopper (left) and Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winner The Salesman (right) are perfect examples of creating situational anxiety, navigating psychic and physical space (and stories within a story), the melding of genres (Personal Shopper with ghost tale, drama, and suspense; The Salesman with American melodrama and Iranian thriller), and also the exploration of female subjectivity.
In much the same way that Assayas has used objects as a focal point throughout his work, Farhadi’s exacting sense and use of space is most palpable in The Salesman. The cramped apartment complex that Emad and Rana move into is so claustrophobically shot, a seemingly marvelous feat to capture the shape of their relationship and its narrative strain, as well as in direct contrast with their kinetic movement within the frame. Seen against the spacious, empty mansion featured in the onset of Personal Shopper, Kyra’s lavish apartment, and Maureen’s chic Parisian studio, both Assayas and Farhadi know how to maximize their use of space without drawing attention to it. As these are fairly traditional and common places to inhabit, their power thematically is easily overlooked. In The Salesman, the theatre becomes naturalized as the home becomes a stage.The movement of characters through space, both psychic and physical, is a point of interest in both films. The energetic moments of reprieve allowed to Stewart’s character in Personal Shopper, specifically in the motorcycle rides around the streets of France, are rare instances of openness with no presence bearing down. Which is not to say it is all sunshine and flowers, as the situational anxiety peaks during an extended chase sequence involving an omnipresent texter (featuring one of the most realistic and entertaining messaging scenes committed to film). Just as this horror plays out (playfully at that), we can look to the play-within-the-film in The Salesman, a reversal of sorts as it clearly isn’t of the main character’s lives, but refractive and splintering, and also related to other characters in the film.
The alternating between and meshing of genres is notable in both films, insofar as they do not push against, but actually fall into and reconfigure spaces we think we already know. The unpredictability of Personal Shopper is certainly given added weight by its flirtation with both common (suspense) and uncommon (ghost tale) genres, as well as its indulgence in a cheeky take on horror. Farhadi, likewise, melds American melodrama with Iranian thriller, his seeming specialty, to formalize and give structure to a narrative that is never less than engaged and engaging.What seems most unique about both films is the way in which their respective filmmakers tackle the lived experience of female subjectivity. In both features, how women live is directly related to their environments. The psychic navigation of minor and major moments is tangential to surround presence. Desire is filtered through this lens but not imprisoned by it. While Stewart’s Maureen gets to move freely between locations, although it’s under the pressure of personal inquiry and capitalism, Rana is almost exclusively confined to her apartment and her second home of the theatre. Getting to see how both of these characters deal with their individualized situational anxieties is illuminating in regards to larger societal ones, surely, but both actresses embody and personalize their characters to make their feelings and actions intimately identifiable and relatable. Hence, why scenes like Maureen dressing up in her employer’s clothes and masturbating in her bed, as well as Rana’s hesitancy to leave the house, are so triggering, but in an effective way, as they are validating and reassuring. We also get to see women take on roles not often seen in cinema – Maureen being a medium and personal shopper, and Rana being a theatre actress. The complexity of the way they work is delivered with a rare perceptive scrutiny.
What seems most inspiring is that these two directors, deep in their careers, are inclined to take these kinds of formal and cinematic risks, still curiously stretching the form and opening it up to new possibilities. Farhadi’s sharp humanism is lovely when contrasted against Assayas resistance against static identity and narrative trajectory. When Maureen looks at the camera and the screen fades to white, and when the credit rolls over our actors in The Salesman, the viewer waits with bated breath. But if you were paying attention, a relieved sigh should follow. Your move, Asghar and Olivier. Narrative cinema needs you.