You do not expect vampire movies and ghost stories at the Cannes Festival. But this time round we got both. The most impressive of the two new films was New Yorker Michael O'Shea's The Transfiguration, in which Milo, a black teenager with an inferiority complex, sucks blood to gain enough confidence to face the world. He lives with his elder brother in a tatty apartment in Rockaway, Long Island, has no parents, few friends and is remorselessly bullied by other teenagers in the housing project. He is being given counselling for all this, and the fact that he has committed acts of animal cruelty. But no one knows about his blood-sucking exploits, except watchers of the film, since in an early scene, Milo kills a customer in a loo, biting his neck and then taking his money. O'Shea, who is over 40 and has been trying to make a feature for years, has finally constructed a tall tale which is as much about impoverished youth as it is about vampirism.
The film is not so much a shocker as an independent's view of social and cultural deprivation. There are plenty of references to other vampire and horror movies. But The Transfiguration remains a unique take on such things. O'Shea is lucky to have a performance from Eric Ruffin in the leading role since the actor maintains a strong presence throughout which never disintegrates into parody, even when all the geek talk about horror movies threatens to stop the thrust of the film in its tracks. Maybe all this will not be enough for those seeking blood and gore in such stories. But O'Shea, who must have made the quietest vampire movie on record, seems dedicated to constructing a debut feature that is as much a typical American, socially aware independent movie as a blood and guts late night thriller. Sometimes, it is true, the drama of The Transfiguration is worryingly slow-burning. But the film makes its mark as an unusual take on its subject matter from a film-maker who has patiently waited his chance to see what he can do.
French director Olivier Assayas has been presented at Cannes four times but Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart and in English, seems a strange way to gather international success. Stewart, clearly a fresh talent as we already know, is the personal shopper of the title. She shops for a leading model who spares no expense in looking good. But she finds that her boss has suddenly gone missing and, worse still for her, a smokey-looking ghost begins to terrify her. Not only that but strange messages appear on her mobile phone, some of them threatening. Slowly but surely she becomes paranoid, desperately trying to discover what has happened and why the messages and the strange apparitions multiply. Assayas is clearly enjoying himself with his ghost story and has certainly got a very decent performance out of Stewart. But this, unlike The Transfiguration, was a competition entrant, and roundly booed at the press showing, possibly for its temerity in giving us more ectoplasm than sense. If it gets a prize, which is highly doubtful, the boos will only increase. At Cannes they like a bit more intellectual rigor than Assayas gives us this time.