This year’s Cannes Film Festival could use more women directors, as there are only three among the official competition lineup of 20. What the festival’s program isn’t hurting for, however, are films centered around a distinctly female experience. Andrea Arnold, with American Honey, attempted a reimagining of Jack Kerouac’s masculine Beat Generation manifesto On the Road as a modern expression of a woman’s sex-rebel freedom; with The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook adapted Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith by upping the agency of its femme fatales; and while Maren Adé’s Toni Erdmann may be named after its male protagonist, it’s much more about the effect he has on his daughter, an independent businesswoman.
Meanwhile, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a rape-revenge thriller starring Isabelle Huppert; Kleber Mendonça Filho’s mysterious Aquarius, about a widowed music critic who fights real estate agents to keep her property; and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Elle Fanning-starring horror-thriller The Neon Demon have all yet to screen, but look to further the theme of strong, determined female characters. What makes Olivier Assayas and Pedro Almodóvar’s own respective competition entries stand out as unique, though, is that their central women figures are defined more by their vulnerability than their strength. They are, in fact, haunted, both literally and figuratively, by the ghosts of men whose deaths they feel some responsibility for.
In Assayas’s Personal Shopper, American in Paris Maureen (Kristin Stewart), a supermodel’s fashion assistant who’s also a psychic medium, is wracked with guilt over the death of her twin brother, who succumbed to the same congenital heart condition she herself could die from at any moment. Appropriately, Maureen can feel like a ghostly presence; she wanders through the dilapidated old house she and her brother grew up in, lounges in her boss’s empty apartment when she’s out of town, and occupies the most solitary of train cars. As Maureen clings to her brother’s memory, Assayas collapses the spiritual slipstream that separates her from him, which turns Personal Shopper into a kind of ghost story, though exactly in what sense is best to be experienced firsthand; no other film at Cannes this year has had quite the same shock of the strange as this one.
Almodóvar’s Julieta, based on a clutch of short stories from Canadian author and Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro’s book Runaway, is a more conventional and densely plotted film—and typical of the director’s later period. The titular character (Emma Suárez as an older woman, Adriana Ugarte as a younger one) is seen at the start preparing to leave her home in Madrid for Portugal, with her boyfriend, until a chance encounter with a young woman reawakens long-suppressed thoughts about the past. The story then shifts focus to the love and loss that led Julieta to a state of emotional numbness, ever so subtly insinuating that her inescapable guilt and regret can actually be traced back to the vices of the men in her life.
Neither Personal Shopper nor Julieta are among their respective director’s best films, in part because they represent holding patterns similar to those that their characters can’t escape from. The most compelling moments in each film turn out to be the bedrock of their decades-old styles: the bold, colorful compositions and framings that Almodóvar has long mastered, which sketch psychological detail more acutely than Julieta’s methodically orchestrated and rather sluggish story; and the sleek, sinewy camera that Assayas uses to stalk his latest Woman in Trouble, as evocative and tense as the more novel supernatural flourishes in Personal Shooper generally aren’t.
Assayas’s film is the better of the two, in part because Stewart’s performance—which smart money says will be Cannes’s Best Actress winner—is such a wholly virtuosic display; her Maureen projects strength as a means to mask her vulnerability, and the film is structured around the character recognizing this. Both films, though, seem considerably more interesting in the context of a Cannes competition lineup they stand apart from—as films about uncertain and lost women instead of powerful and in-control ones—than they are on their own individual merits.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.