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A Portraiture of Grief in ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and ‘Personal Shopper’

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Grief is a funny thing. It can seize you in its unforgiving grip one moment, and then release you with such abruptness as to induce a sense of whiplash. You catch yourself laughing at that one joke during a brief moment of distraction, and it’s as if the rug has been pulled out from under you. Grief is also a curious, confounding and contradictory psychic phenomena; a layered and slippery process that can feel at once dissociative and fully inhabited, suffocating and liberating, numbing and acute, repressive and revelatory. For Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the tragic and emotionally bereft central figure in Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisite and empathetic new feature Manchester by the Sea, grief isn’t so much a universal if devastating test of strength, as it is a self-imposed purgatorial exile for which even the simple act of daily existence becomes a Sisphyean struggle.

A residential building janitor living in a frugally furnished basement apartment in the Boston town of Quincy, Lee leads an isolated and austere existence as a withdrawn shell of a man who doesn’t so much live life as he does shuffle along it. His prickly detachment, complete lack of engagement with anyone or anything and penchant for getting hammered alone at bars (to the point of violent belligerence) quickly betray a troubled and deeply wounded soul within the film’s opening minutes. Lending a natural yet perfectly measured air of brittle agitation to his character’s brooding comportment, Affleck masterfully embodies the misanthropic spirit of a broken man whose noxious unpredictability is barely stifled within a veil of laconic interactions and social propriety — and he palpably communicates Lee’s hotheadedness with each facial tick and gesture. Yet Lee’s humdrum routine of custodial duties and self-medication are soon upended when he receives a call that his affable older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, who brings a genial warmth to his handful of scenes) has died from congenital heart failure. For Lee, returning to his titular hometown means confronting a guarded past marked by inconceivable tragedy, and he tends to all the necessary arrangements and familial responsibilities with a mechanical and fixed, though increasingly fragile, sense of purpose that threatens to unravel at any moment. With his demons steadily bubbling to the surface, viewers slowly come to learn their true and horrifying nature by way of sudden and unceremoniously inserted flashbacks, whose placements are more elegant than they are discordant.

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Upon his return to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Lee is also surprised to learn that Joe has bestowed him with full guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges in a stellar turn), a wisecracking lothario who continues to juggle his two girlfriends, hockey practice and not-so-great garage band rehearsals with relative ease. From time to time, however, the cracks in his self-contained droll veneer slip to reveal deeper reserves of anger, confusion and pain. On the other hand, Lee is a barely suppressed ball of emotional instability and latent rage who personifies the toxic stoicism of masculine repression, and the way he navigates life under the renewed specter of death reveals profound layers of existential angst that are at once singular to the character’s trauma and reflective of the human condition’s peculiar (and often muddled) relationship with grief.

Throughout the film’s nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime, Lonergan’s formal patience often reaches virtuosic heights, for his unhurried style provides ample breathing room for telling moments of human behavior that become almost transcendent in their emotional realism. There’s also an exhilarating sense of organic uncertainty to the way Lonergan allows each scene to play out, and he probes his characters’ interiority with a sense of intimate immediacy that viscerally draws viewers in. And though there’s an undercurrent of operatic melodrama to the film (the most notable example of which being midway through the film, when Lonergan finally reveals the full truth of Lee’s haunted past amidst an excessively melancholic score), the actors’ perfectly modulated performances, coupled with Lonergan’s understated approach, lend a sagacious and unsentimental sincerity to the film that allows it to lean in and embrace the coarse contours of grief without necessarily indulging in it. It is also a testament to Lonergan’s remarkable grasp of human psychology that there’s a catharsis to the film even though it eschews tidy closure and lacks any punctuated scenes of on-the-nose climatic emotion. Rather, there’s a cumulative power to the film’s cathartic effect, for it conveys the consequences of grief through a gradual emotional build-up that demonstrates how the film’s psychic nuances are formally embedded in its DNA.

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A filmmaker with an anthropologist’s curiosity and a playwright’s uncanny ear for prosaic conversation, Lonergan’s observational gifts and faithful attention to detail weave a fully inhabited world whose characters are vibrantly realized in their idiosyncratic flaws and anxieties. Manchester by the Sea also functions as a microcosm of a particular slice of working-class American life, and Lonergan’s panoramic rendering of this coastal New England town communicates the coarse familiarity, dialectal rhythms and cultural norms of its blue-collar world with faithful verisimilitude. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipe’s gray vistas are captured with an atmospheric chilliness that illustrates Lee’s drifting alienation, and with its dotted snow-capped islands, the film’s frigid landscape serves as an apt metaphor for its characters’ sense of isolation, lack of closure and pent-up emotions as Joe’s burial becomes delayed due to the ground being frozen under a thick layer of ice.

Were it not for Lonergan’s frequent use of humor — which never veers into farcical territory thanks to the film’s emotional immediacy — Manchester by the Sea could have easily become a suffocating histrionic display of misery. While the often funny dynamic between Lee and Patrick injects a much-needed levity into the narrative, it also serves another purpose in that it allows the film to achieve a seamless tonal balance that typifies grief’s visceral and erratic mutability. As Lee shuffles Patrick around town for his various social commitments and manages the practicalities of Joe’s financial affairs, Lonergan provides a sense of the absurd incongruity that exists when one has to resume the daily banalities of life in the wake of such a deep personal loss. There’s also a poetic philosophical tension to the film’s intuitive meandering between existential despair and quotidian distractions — one that formally mimics grief’s fickle erraticism while shedding light on the fundamentally singular and vulnerable nature of bereavement. With its anthropological specificity, attuned ear for subtext-rich dialogue and appreciation for the evocative power of body language, Manchester by the Sea’s unaffected look at its characters’ continued obligations reflect the inconvenient and bitter truth that life doesn’t stop to mourn the deceased, and it’s the film’s resplendent humanity and Sisyphean preoccupations that allow it to achieve levels of sublime artistry.

Whereas Lonergan interrogates the realities of grief with sober restraint, Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas plunges viewers right into his protagonist’s bereaved headspace. In a revelatory performance, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper who moonlights as a clairvoyant. Being a medium is Maureen’s true passion, you see, and she resents the inconvenient financial necessity of her job, as well as the vapid materialism of her German-actress client. Maureen’s supernatural fixations are fueled by the recent death of her twin brother (who coincidentally also dies from a heart condition), and she yearns to connect with him as a way to make sense of what happened. As such, Maureen’s grief is propelled by an obsession with the past and an anxious uncertainty of the future, and Stewart’s committed physicality — from the tremble in her fingertips to her character’s near constant movement –communicates the restlessness of someone who will do anything to escape the stagnant anguish of grief, yet who also remains paradoxically static in their refusal to move on.

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Throughout Personal Shopper, Stewart delivers her most vulnerable performance yet, and she beautifully rises to the challenge as the film’s emotional fulcrum, which is no small feat given the film’s experimental audaciousness and illusory nature. With her singular screen presence perfectly and precisely calibrated to the film’s assured if somewhat dissonant tone, Stewart is the perfect conduit for Assayas’ more phantasmic exploration of grief’s subjective limitations. Displaying a hit-or-miss formal ambition, Assayas infuses his latest feature with some of supernatural horror cinema’s most defining aesthetic techniques (such as the hallucination of vengeful apparitions), and his film’s heightened formalism results in a far more cerebral examination of grief.

Part of this cerebral effect lies in Personal Shopper’s temporal manipulations, which echo the ways in which grief skewers one’s perception of time. The most obvious example of this is a 20-minute sequence featuring an entire text exchange between Maureen and an unknown person (or entity). When asked about this stylized use of text messaging during the film’s NYFF post-screening Q&A, Assayas noted that the blunt and succinct nature of texts particularly invites a dubious anonymity that inhabits the “impersonal and disturbing space” of digital communication. Here, Assayas indeed appropriates this space into an unlikely tool for elucidating Maureen’s impulsive and impressionable state of mind, one that doubly functions as an effective metaphor for grief’s unreliable pervasiveness.

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Because Personal Shopper is untethered to a single genre, it is able to lean on its supernatural elements as a way of providing a more literal examination of the notion of life-after-death, drawing on the conventions of thrillers and suspenseful horror films to deliver a game of cat-and-mouse within a ghost story that overall serves as a strangely suitable allegory for Maureen’s sense of loss and confusion. In contrast with Lonergan’s more visceral and abstract meditation on grief, Assayas is far more concerned with its sensory subjectivity and cerebral singularity which, like the act of grieving itself, often results in an obscure, elusive and jarring mosaic of tonal and spiritual contradictions.

Demitra “Demi” Kampakis (@DemionFilm) is a Cinema Studies major who graduated with a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology. She is a Brooklyn-based neurotic film fiend with a soft spot for any auteur-driven psychological fare. As the current film editor for Posture Magazine, Demi has also written for Indiewire and Film Comment, and she uses her spare time to manage her own website Cinefiles of a Cinephile.

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