Returning to the LFF for Day Eight was the honourable Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, Olivier Assayas’s genre mishmash, and the dissection of a mysterious Jane Doe. 

Today’s films came with prestige that was perhaps a bit unfair to start with, following on from such lofty expectations of each was bound to lead to disappointments.

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a master of subtle chicanery: each of his films – which reached a peak in 2011 with the astonishing A Separation – take a fairly straightforward story and drapes it in human and societal emotion. Composed of just a handful of steady, character driven scenes, The Salesman (B) once again takes Farhadi’s vision into the mostly trivial lives of a family: a husband and wife who co-star in a stage adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman. Through simple misunderstandings and human error, this couple deal with the fallout of a domestic tragedy that may or may not have happened in the way that the audience are led to believe. Surprisingly more biased and problematic than even Farhadi’s The PastThe Salesman‘s partisan focus on Emad (Shahab Hosseini) often belays the psychology of the direct victim in favour of the fallout that effects their loved ones. The way in which the film deals with these difficult marital issues is done far better than most directors, but when concerning Farhadi’s esteem, this partiality is a bit of a let-down. It does a fantastic job of avoiding the demonisation of the culprit (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini’s portrayal of The Man is the epitome of empathetic compassion) so by the final scene the pity for all of these characters tackling public humiliation packs a hugely emotional wallop in spite of its lack of immediate protagonist. It’s carefully plotted, and provokingly downplayed by everyone (particularly effervescent is Taraneh Alidoosti’s, whose composed poignancy as Rana gives the film an affirmed soul), but maintaining the focus on Emad and the other male cast seemed like a lapse in the polished, affecting screenplay.

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Next up was the second collaboration between Kristen Stewart and director Olivier Assayas: the frustratingly blunt Personal Shopper (C-). Struggling to find any direction, multiple stories are thrown at the wall with very little success. It’s definitely an ambitious mess, and some credit that must be given to Assayas’s screenplay, but the disparate pieces never once gelled for me in its swollen, lifeless runtime. Stewart plays a personal shopper to a celebrity model whilst moonlighting as a spiritualist medium, also juggling a long-distance relationship, the death of a twin, a familial drama, and an unknown – but easily discernible – stalker. Unfortunately, every one of these narrative styles is half-baked and each met by Stewart with a mechanically amateur-dramatic portrayal, rife with stuttering, eye rolling, and nervous tics. This isn’t native to her character, but is Stewart’s style of acting to the very note (watching her in Certain Women yesterday, then Personal Shopper today, she basically plays it identically). Every motion felt like a one-woman stage play. The disastrous hodgepodge of a screenplay should have held focus on the personal shopper concept, and all the obstacles that were apparent with it, but this was stripped away by the hunt for closure through phantoms. The film grinds to a desperately tedious halt when it shoehorned in the third plot concerning the stalker, 15-minutes of on-screen text messages with reactionary eye-rolls from Stewart was merely a chore. Unpalatable, impenetrable, and lethargic, Personal Shopper had all the hallmarks of a potential winner but deteriorated rapidly at every turn.

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The synopsis for The Autopsy of Jane Doe (C+) is tantalising and curious, and though this carried through to the first act, interest wanes as André Øvredal and co. disembark from their fantastic premise to loudly announce the film as a thundering declaration of inessential jump scares and blood. Opening with a father and son mortuary team (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch in standard, meager roles) the film hints at an appealing foundation: a cryptic Jane Doe ends up on the slab with no history, and few signs of evident trauma. Following this introduction, clues to the puzzle are drip-fed in a pleasingly ambiguous way: the characters’ bewilderment triumphantly reflecting the audiences’, but unfortunately, the film can’t help but fall in to the trappings of brash, blanket horror with a constant clangor and frequent crescendos hampering the smartly created atmosphere. The supernatural leanings are clearly highlighted from the beginning, but the vociferous force with which this tonal shift occurs is aggravating, especially when the first half is so compelling and the revelation of mystery is wholly unfulfilling.

It was a day of disappointments: the first due to such lofty – and unfair – expectations, the second because of such divisive buzz for such a curious genre blend, and the last because I fell into the trap of ‘word of mouth’ horror that I so actively try and ignore.

The Salesman illustration header by cal.con.
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