WHEN BAD MOVIES HAPPEN TO GOOD ACTORS, PART 3

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2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

kevin

I’m a little surprised at how many critics have been raving about Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin. I was one who for a while was intrigued by it (and the fact that I missed it when it first came out) because of its grim topic of lone killers and the aftermath they leave. When I finally sat down to watch it, however, something about this movie, which in my opinion shouldn’t be on a bad movie article, didn’t resonate. Something was tonally, visually off from the get-go, and too much time was spent in framing Tilda Swinton (whom I normally love in anything she does, although she has appeared in a couple of clunkers like this year’s A Bigger Splash) in bold reds over and over and over again, and then having her act so arrogantly through the entire affair it was next to impossible to feel anything for her character.

For those who haven’t seen We Need to Talk About Kevin, this is the 2011 movie based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver. The story depicts a mother, played by Swinton, coming to terms with the devastation that her son (played by Ezra Miller) has left behind following a school massacre. For the initial portion I was hooked, wanting to know more about what could have made this privileged child turn into such a murderous, soulless monster, but the problem lay basically in casting. Swinton, for all her visual presence, is  completely wrong for the character of a mother unable to control her preternaturally psychopathic son. When you see her, you think, “Oh, please. One cold stare and she’s got this by the horns.” Nope. It doesn’t happen. It never happens. We see the son manifest symptoms of early rebellion that will manifest itself much later as an outcry of sheer violence. We see Swinton react . . . but not much. She alternates between looking caught between two emotions, deer in the headlights and deer wondering the make of the vehicle that just struck her. So out of touch if her character that we wonder if there will ever be a conversation that spells out the title of the movie. A caveat, and it’s not a spoiler: don’t wait for it. instead, watch for Gus van Sant’s excellent, devastating Elephant.

I can say that many affluent families that I was associated with in my childhood had this thing where no problems of any kind were discussed or mentioned or even referenced. It just didn’t happen. If there were any issues, those involved suffered in silence. In time they could let the bile out of the bag and make those affected go to therapy. Who cares? So in a way, the fact that this family, uber chic, living in a fabulous home filled with contemporary sterility, has no soul. The father? He’s nowhere to be found. John C Reilly seems to have checked out and left it all to chance. That leave the story nowhere to go but into the red. Now, my other contention is, and yes, this is a spoiler, arrows? Really?

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Look, I get it. Sometimes you want to lessen the bloody impact of a reality all schools must face in the light of Columbine and all that follow, but to make a bow and arrow a part of a tragedy and not have anyone on board — not guards, security, anyone — tackle this crazy down and somehow subdue him? That’s the most egregious example of a plot hole if I’ve ever seen one. There is no way — nope, not a single one — that Kevin would have been able to inflict as much harm the way he did before a couple of school jocks would have taken his shit down, all the way down. We live in a reality of guns, and guns do inflict almost unbearable harm.

But . . . .this is an artistic  movie, I guess, based on an actual novel, and where there is an audience, there will be sales, so those who bought it and read it believed it and stand by it. And that’s okay. I personally loved a couple of artistic aspects of We Need to Talk About Kevin but it was probably a fraction of a whole. That doesn’t save it from me giving it the axe.

 

I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THIS HOUSE

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Oh, boy. Shirley Jackson must be thrashing in her grave right now. Here we have a movie that shamelessly rips off her narrative style down to details — the dry humor with a wink, the stoic omniscience of the lead — and makes no attempt to create something new with it. Osgood Parkins, its director, has taken the well-worn story of the governess and the old, dark house and given it a modernist, minimalist spin. You can start going down your checklist as I type this: old house? Check. Things that go creak in the dark? Of course. Things that move on their own? Yes. Something invisible that seems to want more than one is willing to give? Bingo.

If you can, check a little horror movie called Darling  by Mickey Keating. That’s all I’ll say here, because I won’t spend more than I have to wondering what was it that made this little experiment of a horror movie suck so badly. When you have atmosphere and nothing else there is only so much you can do before one wonders when one can change the channel or switch to a better, more dramatic film. Mind you, I’m not above slow burns with a pay-off. Those are the best. Even something more commercial as Don’t Breathe by Fede Alvarez and produced by Sam Raimi has only two jumpscares that make total sense to the plot instead of being there to make you jump . . .  but nothing else. This one, with its long, elaborate title, looks more like a movie filmed for video only — you can see right through its seams when the horror appears, and all you are left are with ominous external shots of the house the events purportedly take place in. That doesn’t make this even remotely good.

I do hope that Perkins will come up with something better. This is a first film and mistakes happen. Maybe I saw it wrong, but I’ve seen a lot of horror since I was a child and this one made me irritable. Even names like Paula Prentiss and Bob Balaban, stalwarts from the 70s, helped not an iota. What a total waste of time.

WHEN BAD MOVIES HAPPEN TO GOOD ACTORS, PART 2

DENIAL

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

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I’m surprised that such a flat, god-awful movie about a petty woman going head to head with a Nazi sympathizer has managed to survive this long in theaters when better films, like The Red Turtle, among others, barely croak after one solid week. I’m going to suspect it has to do with its subject matter and the fact that its a Holocaust-related film. Those topics still resonate with a lot of people. Helen Mirren had a massive hit not one year ago with her Woman in Gold, also about a lawsuit involving property. However, Mick Jackson’s Denial is not even in the same league as the aforementioned. Not even close.

How bad is it? Well, consider that the woman you’re supposed to root for, Deborah Lipstadt, played by a shrill Rachel Weisz in a horrendous nasal accent and unflattering wig, is not just unsympathetic but petty. Yes, I do get that her writings did have merit in accusing David Irving (Timothy Spall) of denying the Holocaust never existed, but when her character and Spall’s eventually spar in court she can’t but help throwing these “toldja so” glances of sheer triumph over every minor thing that transpires. Maybe this is how the real Lipstadt was; I don’t know or care, but in a story, even if it’s ripped from the headlines, one should be able to root for the hero. There were times when I actually did the opposite, and I know of David Irving’s beliefs and his pandering to German (i. e. Aryan) perfection.

Denial probably shouldn’t be a bad movie, but because of its cardboard, phoned-in direction (then again, this is Mick Jackson, director of 1992’s The Bodyguard and 1997’s Volcano), the fact there is next to no tension, no empathy for any of the characters (even Tom Wilkinson fails to register, and he’s usually note-perfect), I have to give it a thumbs down and say “Next!”. Again, I’m comparing this one to Woman in Gold, a not-very good movie that still had you in suspense right up until its emotional end. That’s what Denial should have been.

 

TALLULAH

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

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I’m not sure where to start with this one. I’m going to assume that the writer/director, Sian Heder, somehow thought it okay to rehash a mixture of screwball movies from the 30s and 40s and update to modern times by including a gay couple that features in only one scene. Ellen Page stars as the of neo-hippie Tallulah (not named for the actress, as we learn later), who loves to live in the wild, steal credit cards, and think not a thing about her future. She finds herself abandoned by her boyfriend Nico who decides that he’s tired of this sort of nomadic lifestyle. When she goes back into the city looking for Nico she finds herself at NIco’s mother Margo’s (Allison Janney) apartment who tells her she hasn’t seen Nico in two years and to leave.

Having nowhere to go Tallulah sneaks into a posh hotel looking for leftover food when she meets Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a blowsy peroxide blonde with a Marilyn Monroe voice and an infant daughter. Carolyn mistakes Tallulah for a chambermaid and asks her to babysit for her girl since she’s on her way to a 5 to 7. Something clicks inside Tallulah who on a whim takes the girl and runs. Because of course you would do that. [Sometimes characters behave more according to what the plot wants them to do rather than logic.] She heads to Margo’s place and tells her the baby is her daughter. Why Margo buys into it goes beyond me, but okay, she offers help, and for a while, the movie slows down to a crawl as both women bond over each other.

If this were played for straight laughs I guess I would have liked Tallulah more, but the movie gets more and more dramatic with each turn that by the end, Carolyn has morphed into a tragic heroine, Tallulah remains firmly grounded in her delusions of motherhood, and Margo winds up in la-la land. And no, that is not a spoiler. There is basically no closure to this mess of a film. The only good thing coming out of it are the performances themselves: Janney and Page work extremely well with each other in their third movie together. Tammy Blanchard looks like she belongs in two separate movies: one playing a 50s caricature of a blonde bombshell, and the other, playing a distraught mother who has to come to terms with her  negligence. In the end, Tallulah is an overreaching story with too much implausibilities and no clear vision of where to go or what it wants to say.

 

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5)

 

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The joke almost writes itself with the title of this train-wreck I saw right after Shut-In, a mistake I will forever lament since I had other, better options. But, my one-track mind wanted to get this baby out of the way and I just happened to be in the same cinema, a theater away.

I don’t know where I started to dislike this movie. I’m going to state that it was shortly after it had started when Emily Blunt, who was excellent last year in Denise Villeneuve’s Sicario, started to act overly petulant and downright stalkerish. By now most of you have seen the movie or have read the book so I won’t get into the mechanics of the plot which, by the way, is so over the top I can’t even. Suffice it be to say that when I found myself praying for something truly terrible to happen to Blunt’s demented and simpering character, that’s when it got all sorts of stupid beyond measure. Why couldn’t Leatherface just walked into the frame and macheted everyone to pieces? Was it too much to ask?

And that’s all I have to say about this.

WHEN BAD MOVIES HAPPEN TO GOOD ACTORS, PART 1

I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t have it all. No amount of planning and research will prepare you for a bad movie night and I have had my share of them over the years. You just have to sit back, chew on your over-salted, under-buttered popcorn, sip your soda, and hope that the time just flies by so you can get out of the theater and rush back home to some much needed chilling out. Or a cold shower.

 

AMERICAN HONEY

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Like Kelly Reicherdt, who film snobs practically adore and slobber over, I can’t quite get Andra Arnold or what message or reality she is trying to bring to the forefront with her overlong movies. American Honey is by far the longest, and for anyone who’s been watching indies since the late 80s, everything you would expect to happen in an indie does so here. You have the meandering, organic plot that chugs along while you want for something of importance to happen. You have shots of the sky, the land, the water, people dancing on a bonfire, or to music in a wasteland. You have loads of folk, little more than non-actors, ad-libbing their lines to high hell. You have what would be central performances done in a way as to resemble hyper-reality. And while I don’t mind entering any of these tropes, the length of this film almost killed me. Reader, we are talking about almost three hours sitting in a movie theater waiting for the gun to go off. It never does. Paint dries faster than this.

And I get it. Arnold, like many non-conventional visual narrators, is letting her own story “grow” on its own. That’s fine and dandy for abstract and conceptual art and even some short conceptual films, but when you’re telling the coming of age of a young American girl of mixed race who rag-tags along a gang of vagabonds who sell coupons to affluent white folk for peanuts, you should have a tighter construction even and then tune it up to make it look more lyrical. Letting the camera just zone out into the distance, or in one scene, allowing a bear to come up close to your main actor (Sasha Lane in what I believe is her debut) and have nothing come of it, no discernible meaning . . . that’s just pretentious. If it weren’t for the presence of Shia Lebouf as the bad boy Lane falls for and the occasional appearance of Riley Keough as the gang’s Queen Bee with her dead eyes and droll delivery, there probably wouldn’t me much to hold on to. American Honey, titled after the Lady Antebellum song (that gets its full performance by the cast as they drive across the countryside), has a couple of good moments here and there, but lands flat on its face and never recovers.

 

EDGE OF WINTER

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

A tiny little film that unless you were in NYC or LA you may have missed when it premiered in the summer, Edge of Winter purports to be a domestic drama about a father trying to connect with his two sons in the Canadian back country, and for a brief moment it works. However, for some reason, director Rob Connolly decided that he needed to up the ante up to crazytown and make Joel Kinnaman (he’s in House of Cards as Congressman Will Conway) play his part with such over dramatic  force that you can feel the ground tremble at his feet. I can understand why an unstable father would react (well, in his case, overreact) to his boys going to live with their mother in London. However, veering into full on horror and turning him into a sadistic asshole bent on antagonizing the brothers (Tom Holland plays one of them) is a cheap move. There could have been many much more ways to resolve this story without Kinnaman having to go full on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. By degrading his story into a wintry horror, Connolly is telling me he didn’t trust his actors or his screenplay enough that he had to ratchet the intensity all the way up. It just doesn’t work.

 

SHUT-IN

0 out of 5 stars (0 / 5)

I hate this movie. I hate — hate — HATE this Em-effing movie. I can’t believe I got suckered into watching Naomi Watts head a capable cast down the drain in another wintry mess, this time one that happens while she’s stranded in her own house. And again, I don’t mind cheap scares or a good horror yarn, but did this movie really need to give me jump scares every 10 minutes on the clock to make sure I would be tense, awake, and with adrenaline pumping at full speed? Cheap jump scares don’t work. They never — ever — will. You can have legitimate scares; they are necessary in horror, and if not, just watch Psycho for an excellent tutorial on how you give the audience that jolt it needs. When they come in Psycho, they do so because there has been an incredible amount of tension just accruing, grain by grain, minute by minute, until the character gets closer and closer to the trap. And bang! There it happens, the monster flies out, and we scream. We scream not because it was a false scare — this was visceral, real, horrifying, and we can’t but scream.

Shut-in offers not a single legitimate scare throughout its mercifully brief run, but it tantalizes you with the promise that we will find out if Naomi is truly a reliable narrator or actually being stalked, and if she is, we’ll see by whom. You see, she’s a Psychologist practicing therapy in the New England woods and caring for her paraplegic son who is a vegetable. Early in the movie she does have a fantasy that it might be best to drown him, but that’s about it. When another patient of hers, played by Jacob Tremblay (of last year’s Room) enters the picture, Harris tries to help, but it seems the kid is too problematic for that and will be sent away. Tremblay shows up at her place but disappears the next day. And then she begins to hear bumps in the house, and things oddly out of place. Conversations with a colleague via Skype (played by Oliver Platt) glean not much to advance the plot and only serve so that he can be a witness to something in the background and, in true horror movie mode, come to the rescue and—

Yeah. The entire thing is a giant cheat. You;ll have to see it to get what I’m talking about, There is a twist that is so completely unbelievable M. Night Shyamalan might shake his head in disapproval. It negates everything that has logically transpired up to this moment. Had the screenwriter and director left it as something more atmospheric like J. A. Bayona’s o2007 movie The Orphanage, which did make complete sense, then you’d have a much better film. As it is, Shut-In is highway robbery.

TWO BY LARRAIN: JACKIE AND NERUDA

Chile was unusually well-represented this year at the New York Film Festival when Pablo Larrain submitted not one but two movies, both biopics, to its lineup. It’s hard for me to say which one resonated with me the most, because both are incredibly good. I won’t be surprised when both of them — Jackie and Neruda — garner Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, Movie, and Foreign Language Film.

Neruda

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The trend of experimental biopics that offer some liberties within actual events continues in Pablo Larrain’s Neruda. When Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco, who looks almost exactly like the poet) delivers some verbal accusations to the Chilean government of pandering to the US by abandoning its ties to Communism, he becomes a wanted man and has to from then on go into hiding. Onto his trail comes a detective (Gael Garcia Bernal) who has his own reasons to catch Neruda and bring him back to justice. Both men never meet in person, but Neruda, who becomes a master of disguise, has several books delivered to Bernal’s detective hands that start to erode into the detective’s own sense of self while he slowly closes in on Neruda.

Neruda never attempts to deify the poet laureate — in fact, there are several scenes that make him look less noble and wholly self-serving to his own ego. Neruda presents a man who was enamored with his own myth, who often gives into self-indulgence, and loves but under-appreciates his long suffering wife (the excellent and subtle Mercedes Moran). I appreciated this because most biopics tend to present its subject matter as someone almost beyond reproach and a vehicle for an actor to reveal his or her acting chops. While that is good — it does Jackie, Larrain’s next movie, a world of good — it’s also a rather old technique. In mixing fact and fiction, Neruda becomes less a biopic and more a literary mystery flanked by those who love him or hate him. Watch for Alberto Castro and Marcelo Alonso, both who appeared in Larrain’s previous film El Club, in cameos.

 

Jackie

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The first shot in the movie comes with portentous ambient music that announces not just a distraught Jackie Kennedy walking across the lawn of the Hyannis home she is living in, but the horror she’s just been through following that fatal morning in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. There is nothing that prepares you for this. All the emotions of a woman now trying to salvage the remains of a life that she can no longer go back to is right there, on Natalie Portman’s porcelain face to display. One wonders what went through Jackie’s mind during that period, and Pablo Larrain, through shooting in 16mm film, captures the moments both leading up to the fateful Dallas visit when Jackie had just become the First Lady and was, through television, serving as hostess to the White House which she had just finished decorating. You get through some flashbacks the feeling that nothing would have prepared her for such a tragedy.

When it comes, Pablo Larrain does not flinch. We are right in the middle of it, almost as if it were a documentary, seeing JFK’s head explode and splatter Jackie’s famous pink dress with bright crimson. We are right up there when she returns to the White House, alone, showers the blood off of her, and starts to reminisce. It’s a terrific series of sequences that Portman performs from the inside — a complete opposite of her physical collapse in Black Swan.

And so now, a somewhat hardened Jackie summons Theodore White to Hyannis to conduct an interview for Life magazine. In that interview, Jackie calls the shots. No wilting flower, in the softest of tones, she commands authority over White with just the right amount of bitchiness that doesn’t alienate her from the audience, practically directing it herself while White obliges (and kudos to Billy Crudup for making what would have been a thankless role — barely a voice, even, had Larrain chose to film only Portman — three-dimensional and sympathetic). It’s an extended sequence reminiscent of the shorter scene Alberto Castro has with Marcelo Alonso in El Club, with Alonso merely asking while Castro softly lashes out and demands respect, even now.

Jackie’s intent is to preserve an idealized version of her and JFK’s legacy (and that of the family — Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) also stands up to help Jackie along the way). While well intentioned, it does come across as a last ditch attempt to present a reality that only the privileged few could aspire to — that of comparing their life in the White House as Camelot. I can see, however, why she would want to do it — why shouldn’t she? One must preserve a dead man’s work and what other way to do so than to treat him as if he had been a king. For all Americans at the time, this is precisely what JFK was. And so, she defies the men in suits that try to dissuade her from marching towards JFK’s funeral (and exposing her children as well). Larrain films these sequences with the gravity and solemnity of a Medieval piece, holding back nothing.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that out of the two movies Pablo Larrain has presented at the New York Film Festival this is my favorite. With Jackie, Larrain captures history with such precision, such detail, that it seems to leap out of the screen and come alive all around. No first lady has had such a cinematic treatment as Jackie Kennedy. I’m almost positive Portman will get an Oscar nom, if not the award itself. We shall see.

Neruda premieres in theaters December 16.

Jackie premieres in theaters Thursday December 1.

WOMEN ON THE VERGE: COMPLIANCE, ELLE, AND BIG DRIVER

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than seeing rape on camera, depicted or suggested (or both). There’s just something gut-wrenching and horrifying about seeing a woman demoralized and debased on camera that also, somehow, by voyeurism, makes me, the watching eye, complicit. Watching even a brief glimpse — or, as in the case of that unwatchable, ten-minute scene from Irreversible, an apparent eternity and right onto the camera–is stomach-churning, it’s a cry of outrage, one that demands some kind of retribution, be it legal as in 1988’s  The Accused or something much darker as in Ms, 45 and a slew of rape-revenge films.

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Craig Zobel’s 2012 indie Compliance falls under a different category altogether. Rape isn’t an isolated event that befalls the heroine and disgraced her; oh, no. The entire film is a relentless progression towards the debasement and utter humiliation of a young woman working at a fast-food restaurant. The chain’s manager, Sandra, played by the excellent Ann Dowd (she’ll show up next in the made for TV Big Driver), has received news that her staff is using too much bacon on their burgers. There’s the possibility some may be eating them off camera. Whatever the case, she’s already in a frazzled state when she gets a call from a man purporting to be a police officer asking her questions about her employees stealing from customers. Somehow, Sandra can’t shake the call off, and the probing officer continues to grill her on her employees, particularly Becky (Dreama Walker). Once the officer starts making demands that they isolate Becky for questioning in the back room, things start to slowly spiral out of control. Once Becky herself is on the phone with the officer who claims to know everything about her,  Compliance takes a vicious left turn and never looks back.

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The events that unfold start to feel almost hazy and as an viewer I had to often step back and distance myself from the sheer nastiness that Becky is subjected to by a voice on the phone. When you see it you will feel deeply complicit as well as outraged  how is it possible that a store mananger couldn’t be more proactive? You might be surprised. Shades of the Stanford Prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s own research on the behavior of people caught in a tense situation where one is in control and one is not — master and servant — tint the movie. People can go from being mild mannered to evil in a switch when the voice of authority calls. Compliance makes accomplices into what Hannah Arendt calls the banality of evil  “I was just following orders.”

The kicker? It actually happened. [A+]

 

bigdriver

One story that looks like it could have partially been based on fact is the movie adaptation of  Stephen King’s novella Big Driver, a story you can find in his Full Dark, No Stars compilation which came out several years ago. [A Perfect Marriage, also in that compilation and an equally compelling story, is also featured there.] Big Driver isn’t a bad movie — it has several good parts — but it suffers from the same curse that most adaptations of Stephen King’s work do: bad direction and an overall sense of a failed project, a story that looks and reads great on paper but feels like something you’ve seen countless times before. [I think its association as being a Lifetime movie didn’t help.] It’s too bad, because Big Driver is dark as they come. Maria Bello plays Tessa Thorne, a famous author of “cozy mysteries” that has garnered her a following with older ladies. Tessa gets an invitation from Ramona Norville (Ann Dowd, again) to come speak and do a Q & A in Chicopee, Massachussetts. Once the event is over, Ramona casually advises Tessa to avoid the Interstate and instead take a back road that is much safer. Tessa follows her advice. That advice turns out to be the biggest mistake she’s ever made.

She encounters vehicle problems when her car runs over some nail-studded planks of wood and she blows a tire. Needing help, she meets a tall bear of a truck driver who instead of helping her, soon turns violent, rapes the shit out of her, beats her unconscious, and throws her body into a culvert. Once there, Tessa, in shock but also in survival mode, makes her way into the darker recesses of the culvert and makes a horrifying discovery. Even so, she escapes, bloody and battered, and somehow makes her way back to her hotel where she assesses the level of physical damage to her body and surprisingly, decides against reporting him to avoid the scandal of being a rape victim.

What comes next should be tense filled, but even for an 85 minute movie, doesn’t take the movie any other place than the requisite revenge that is broadly advertised in the trailer. I personally don’t have a problem with such a predictable route. The problem lies that it’s so transparent. Tessa displays next to  no soul-searching (Curiously, Isabelle Huppert’s character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle faces a similar dilemma of not reporting the rape, but also carrying on, but more on that one next.) Tessa has made the decision to take justice into her own hands, go back to the scene of the crime, and pay her rapist a visit.

Mikael Salomon isn’t a director I am familiar with (he’s mostly done television and was a cinematographer in the 80s and 90s) but Big Driver is serviceable without rising above the material. Also, keeping the narrative so faithful not only to the source material but also the author’s quirks rob the film of any emotional impact once the inevitable confrontations take place. Had Salomon and his screenwriter Richard C Matheson (son of the famed author of the same name) taken a different approach to the material perhaps the supporting pieces to the whole that is Big Driver would  have worked. Instead, they’re a distraction. [B]

 

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Here we are at the third and final film that tackles rape in a unusual way. Paul Verhoeven isn’t shy to press buttons when it comes to provoking the audience with shock.  His latest feature, Elle, which may very well be his crowning achievement, will not fail to disappoint even when its topic is as difficult and borderline lurid. That he cast renowned French actress, Isabelle Huppert, as his brilliantly complex heroine/anti-heroine, is a coup de grace. This is a role that actresses would kill for and I’m surprised of the amount of rejections it went through before landing on Huppert’s hands; however, I’m glad she got it. It’s as if Verhoeven had already thought of Huppert well before the movie was even completed–she’s that obsessively good.

If you can believe it, Elle is a black comedy about rape. Yes, you read that correctly: the horrible R word no woman ever wants to experience. From the get-go Verhoeven plunges us into its black desire and all we hear ar the painful, horrified shrieks of Michele LeBlanc  (Huppert)  as she attempts to shield herself from her attacker. When the camera’s eye opens we see a black cat observing the horror show with a bored look on its face. And then, no sooner than it happened, it’s over.  The assailant, a man with a ski mask and track suit, leaves the premises. Here is where Elle starts to go sideways into the unknown. Instead of predictably calling the police and making a report (she has a rather contentious history with the authorities for reasons having to do with her father, an infamous serial killer now serving a life sentence), Michele gets up, cleans the mess, takes a bath, and proceeds to move on with her life. She dismisses her attack to her son as a tumble she took, but makes the rather casual remark at dinner that freezes them all: “I guess I was raped.”

We will return to this awful scene not once,  but several times. I’ve come to the conclusion that Michele is perhaps in a perverse way atoning for the sins of her father, but her character is much too complex to leave it at that. This is not the first time Verhoeven has created females who don’t obey the rules of what a woman should do in certain situations — indeed, in society — and with Michele, he has by far outdone himself. Her character makes snide comments at her own mother who is having an affair with a gigolo, she berates her own employees who question her use of violence in video games, has an affair with her best friend’s husband in her own office, and masturbates to the neighbor next door whom she invites to a dinner with her entire family — one that transpires with a lot of heavy petting under the table and verbal innuendo. And all the time, we can’t seem to not like her. Perhaps her cries of help at the beginning have already established a subliminal link in our minds from the get-go. Perhaps we all would like to be this detached. It all rests on the magnificent performance Isabelle Huppert conveys of what is essentially an amoral sociopath walking a tightrope between life and death.

There is a lot to be said about Elle that even the Q & A with Verhoeven at the opening night at the Alice Tully last October didn’t manage to answer. I also don’t want to venture into talking more about it because to do so would be to reveal aspects of this thriller that are best left to the viewer. I will say, however, that Elle is a highly original and unusual character study that is all over the place in tones — it moves from violence to comedy to drama with incredible ease, and one can find them all sitting side by side in the same scene. One could call it an extreme version of female empowerment. After all, Michele gets to do things that goes completely left of what is considered moral. As a matter of fact, nothing in Michele suggests she herself is moral, but that she lives on her own terms. So it’s appropriate that her progressive delving into this flirtation with danger with the man who raped her is almost perfect for her type of character. Michele understands the culture of violence that she now profits from. It what makes her so deliciously good when she not only embraces it, but does so with perverse abandon. [A+]