The Erotic and the Political at Cannes in 2016

Discussing 'Personal Shopper' and 'Aquarius'

Kristen Stewart in 'Personal Shopper'

Kristen Stewart in ‘Personal Shopper’ Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Kristen Stewart passionately masturbates in extravagant haute couture. Geriatric Sonia Braga gets a booty call from a young Brazilian buck. Sex sells – but art-house sex is much more satisfying. Celebrating a very randy anniversary, the 69th Cannes Film Festival has thoughtfully included a touch of the erotic for both young and old.

Re-teaming with French auteur Olivier Assayas for the Gallic ghost story Personal Shopper, Ms. Stewart made her second appearance in Cannes after last Wednesday’s curtain-raiser Café Society. But while Woody Allen’s luxuriously wistful romance garnered polite applause, Personal Shopper earned more than a few boos at its first screening. “Hey, hey, hey,” said Ms. Stewart, defending the film later at a press conference. “Not everyone booed. Let’s be clear.”

Cannes has a grand, if dubious, tradition of audience reactions that run the spectrum (both L’Avventura and Pulp Fiction were reportedly razzed by some audiences here; and it’s not uncommon for derisive noises to erupt even at the awards ceremony). Although the elegant, contemplative Personal Shopper is full of intriguing ideas and moments of unexpected dread, it doesn’t quite hit the ambitious heights of the director’s other classics like Summer Hours or the sprawling epic Carlos. But expectations were unfairly high for this supernatural suspense story, especially coming on the heels of the previous Assayas-Stewart collaboration The Clouds of Sils Maria, which won the Twilight star a César Award (France’s equivalent of the Oscars , which had never previously been given to an American).

“I’m playing somebody who’s so stuck in this cerebral state that she can’t even be physical with another person. She flits back and forth between that and being the most realized, absolutely present, animalistic version of herself.”

In Personal Shopper, Ms. Stewart plays Maureen, a put-upon assistant to a difficult but glamorous celebrity with a bottomless appetite for the latest fashion. And in between motorcycle errands to Chanel and Cartier, Maureen is also a freelance medium trying to communicate with her twin brother, who died three months earlier. Moments of bump-in-the-night chills and ectoplasmic vomit jostle with quotidian tours of clothing ateliers, all while Maureen seems to be having a nervous breakdown of sorts.

“It’s really a movie about finding yourself,” said Ms. Stewart. “It’s an enormous identity crisis movie. I’m playing somebody who’s so stuck in this cerebral state that she can’t even be physical with another person. She flits back and forth between that and being the most realized, absolutely present, animalistic version of herself.”

Ergo her character’s topless nonchalance and onanistic fingerplay, which has grabbed the attention of the Twitter sphere and will doubtless make it a must-see for K-Stew fans. “The only way to really show somebody who couldn’t connect the dots is to show extreme versions,” she said. “And the only way to do that is to get naked and reveal yourself.”

Ms. Stewart has a kindred spirit in Ms. Braga, currently the Best Actress frontrunner for her lioness role in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. She plays Clara, an affluent widow and former rock critic living alone as a holdout tenant in a run-down apartment building who fends off the chronic overtures from a hostile real estate developer eager to raze her spacious home and build a new residential complex. At 145 minutes, the leisurely paced drama steeps itself in both past and present, savoring both while shuttling between glimpses from a richly lived life and scenes of a passionate Golden-Ager just as equally engaged in the here and now.

Sonia Braga in 'Aquarius'

Sonia Braga in ‘Aquarius’ Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

She’s also one tough cookie, as Filho shows in one startling shot when Ms. Braga, fresh from a dip in the nearby ocean, strips off a bathing suit to reveal her right-breast mastectomy. This is a woman who has survived cancer, is comfortable in her own skin, and still revels in physical sensations. “I believe sexuality walks with us,” said the sexagenarian actress when asked about her character’s inherently sensual nature. “We have the organs. We carry them. And this is for any gender and any age. I was talking to a 20-year-old who was shy and I said, ‘Don’t lose your time! Find a girlfriend.’”

That same sense of carpe-diem urgency also informs Clara, since she’s not afraid to point out the corruption in Brazilian society and confront it headlong. “It’s a film about resistance and survival,” said the director. “But above all, it’s about the energy you get when you’re trying to survive. I actually believe it gives you more energy to go on and defend yourself. And Sonia understood that right away.”

The timing for Aquarius is uncanny, since Brazil is in the throes of its own political crisis as President Dilma Rousseff’s impending impeachment looms. In quiet protest, during the film’s red carpet premiere, the formally attired stars silently held up sheets of paper addressing the situation: “BRAZIL IS EXPERIENCING A COUP D’ETAT”; “CHAUVINISTS, RACISTS, AND SCAMMERS AS MINISTERS!” “SAVE BRAZILIAN DEMOCRACY!”

The simple stunt landed them on the front pages of newspapers around the world, including the Guardian. “It’s basically a small gesture,” said Filho. “But Cannes has many cameras, and it worked beautifully.”

The Erotic and the Political at Cannes in 2016