THE KITCHEN. Country, USA. Director, Andrea Berloff. Screenwriters, Andrea Berloff, Ollie Masters, and Ming Doyle, based on the comic book by Masters and Doyle. Cast: Melissa Mccarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domnhall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian D’Arcy James, Common, Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Jeremy Bobb. Runtime, 102 minutes. Venue, AMC Village 7. Mostly Indies rating, C+
You would think that stepping off her excellent portrayal of greed and miserabilism in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy would continue the trend into more dramatic fare. Her current entry, Andrea Berloff’s flat The Kitchen, places McCarthy in a dramatic limbo, sandwiched between Tiffany Haddish — who actually fares better considering her latest outings have been comedies — and Elisabeth Moss, who does wonders with a part that has next to no lines. McCarthy’ part, we understand, is meant to evoke sympathy, a woman who discovers empowerment and her own place in the world even if that world is the underbelly of society and dominated by men who aren’t ready to let go of that power just yet.
It’s not that McCarthy is bad in the movie; she’s quite good, as usual, and sports truly beautiful 70s hair. It’s the movie itself that doesn’t quite know, it seems, how to fully develop her character, or if she understands the repercussions that come with her choice as her character moves from situation to situation and stakes get higher.
But before I get there, here is the synopsis: three abused wives of mob men who’ve been arrested in Ann FBI sting find themselves without a penny to their name. An opportunity arises to collect some back-owed money, and this soon morphs into greater chances to acquire footing by running their husbands affairs. Things don’t quite bode well with the men in the business, who decide to retaliate, and it’s only time before the husbands themselves get out. In the interim, the women start to acquire power within the settings of the City, going as far as to lay claim to neighborhoods and accomplish serious dealings with a major monster played by Bill Camp. Rifts start to appear between Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (McCarthy) over the use of money and power. As it turns out, and with good reason, Ruby will turn out to be more power-hungry than she first presented herself. That will pose a problem neither Kathy nor anyone could see coming.
So far, so good: the movie in concept does have a solid ground to stand on. There will be the inevitable comparison to last year’s Widows (itself an equally pulpy, silly story of crosses and double crosses that force the widows of mobsters to stand their own). I think that it’s mainly the presentation itself. For so much story, paring it does to a mere 100 minutes makes it feel rushed and superficial. For the most part we don’t really get to know who these women truly are. There is really no major build up to any showdown so any conflict resolution seems almost cardboard—okay, but nothing more. Other than Elisabeth Moss’ Claire — single handedly the movie’s highlight and the one with the most character development and the one the movie’s plot treats most shabbily — we only experience them as three women transitioning into power and eliminating anything that stands between them and control.
Perhaps that is all the movie wanted to say. Men may have led the path in gangster films, but now it’s the women’s turn. If only it could have made that a bit more memorable.
THE SOWER, France. Director: Marie Francen. Cast: Pauline Burlet, Geraldine Pailhas, Alban Lenoir, Francoise Lebrun. Screenwriters: Jacqueline Surchat, Jacques Fieschi. Based on the book by Violette Ailhaud.Language: French. Runtime 98 minutes. US Release date: March 1, 2019. Venue: Gene Siskel Theater, Cbicago, IL. Rating B.
You probably have never heard of Marine Francen, and barely remember French actress Francoise Lebrun, who made her mark in the 1973 film The Mother and the Whore (a movie that gets an ample discussion scene in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale) and who has a small part in The Sower. This is because Francen’s movie, which premiered at San Sebastian in 2017 and won the New Director’s award, features no marquee names, and is as obscure as the source material from which it emerges from. Based on the book by Violette Ailhaud, which did not see the light of day until almost 100 yeats after her death in 1925, this amazingly real story of women left to their own devices is based on real events.
It turns out, and I am recounting from historical events, in 1851, President Louis Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France following a coup-d’etat to ensure he could remain in power. In doing so, he decimated the male population, sending Republican sympathizers either to their deaths or to exile, leaving the countryside a place devoid of men. One could see where following so much unrest, women would despair and feel as though the walls had closed in and they now had next to no protection, no guidance, and in essence, nothing to live for.
Into this world we get introduced to 16 year old Violette Ailhaud (Pauline Burlet), a wide-eyed innocent girl who takes refuge with other townswomen in a village. One afternoon, as they sit about and ponder their fates, Violette posits the question: what to do if a man comes into their world? It seems almost child’s play, what they come up with in a pastoral equivalent of the conjuring of the Witches of Eastwick, but all of the women decide — and make a pact — that they will all share this man, equally, no hierarchy, he will belong to all of them.
If this were a story of fiction I would have then labeled what happens next as shamelessly contrived for dramatic effect. Into their world walks in a man — Jean (Alban Lenoir, looking rugged and mysterious while displaying a wiry sexuality about him). No reason as to why, he just appears, and gets welcomed into the makeshift village where the women live in wait. Jean takes to Violette almost naturally, and while the women allow them to play boyfriend snd girlfriend, it’s clear that their relationship has an expiration date. Jean, unbeknownst to him, will have to be told that he is to be a man and husband for the rest of the women.
Again, that this story even occurred seems a slight bit of fantasy in itself, but in Ailhaud’s book, these events did transpire. Francen and her team of screenwriters don’t delve too much into a scenario that veers out of the aspects of the story and into proto-feminist warfare. In essence, the narration is kept lean, pastoral, sensual, but focused on the cards at hand. The Sower is not a loud debut picture, but a quiet little attempt at painting a picture of a society governed by uncertainty and fear, and in that, and in its ensemble cast, it succeeds.
MY COUSIN RACHEL
Director: Roger MIchell
Runtime: 105 minutes
(1 / 5)
Does anyone remember those haunting opening lines of Rebecca? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It’s enough to send shivers down your back whether you’ve read the Daphne DuMaurier novel, allegedly plagiarized from Carolina Nabucco’s 1934 novel A Sucessora, or seen the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece in Gothic suspense. It also shows that perhaps this dreamy ambiguity was good for only one novel and nothing else; as a writer, DuMaurier may have had her inspirations, but she was not exactly what I would call a good writer.
Perhaps then this is the reason that Roger MIchell’s version manages to colossally misfire and land in a puddle of mud before it even has time to tell its tale. Picture this, a story in which another ambiguous line starts the wheels of the plot in motion– “Did she? Didn’t she?” — reeks of phoning in a sense of dread, the kind that by its presence and atmosphere alone should grab a hold of your stomach and apply some unsavory pressure little by little until you can’t even breathe. The person who utters that question is our hero Philip (Sam Claflin, previously seen in Their Finest), who plays the male version of Rebecca‘s X — basically a non person who tells of a childhood living wile and free with his cousin Ambrose, who then went off to Italy, and while there met and fell in love with the titular Rachel only to suddenly fall ill and die soon after the two of them were married.
So much build up is placed on these events that we feel that after Ambrose kicks the bucket, Philip will turn into some kind of raving Byronic hero of the kind fo leave even Heathcliff in the dust. He does vow revenge on Rachel, whom he suspects of murdering Ambrose, but once she arrives at Plymouth all that falls by the wayside and Philip is practically giving Rachel the benefits of the doubt and the keys to his entire estate faster than you can see 45 tweet covfefe. Once I saw this happen with frightening speed my eyebrow arched, and I went “What just happened? Can we refresh this scene, please, and play it slowly? No? Okay. ” That, my friends, just doesn’t quite gel in a story that should be less about what is said, shown, or spoken, and more about insinuations, side glances, and especially emotions just waiting to be released, at least, for a little. It doesn’t help that Rachel Weisz is completely wrong for this film — an actress who could be more enigmatic could have been a better choice — and Sam Claflin, like I said earlier, is written rather blandly. It’s hard to care for any of this movie’s people when they themselves don’t give their own moments on screen any life. My Cousin Rachel isn’t deadly; shes just plain dullsville. Perhaps I’ll wait for Lady Macbeth — that looks like it’s got teeth.
My Cousin Rachel is still playing in theaters and arrives on DVD at the end of August.
France / Switzerland
Director: Frederic Mermoud
Runtime: 85 minutes
(4 / 5)
Emmanuelle Devos is a French actress that I’ve been seeing on film for the past 15 years now, and while she’s a good performer for the most part, that little girl voice of hers and that look of perpetually helpless wait begging to be rescued somewhat puts me off. It’s the sole reason I didn’t go to see Moka at the Film Forum when it premiered and waited a couple of days until it was extended for a third and final week there. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit in a theater listening to a woman just over 50 talking like a sex-kitten filled with angst and vulnerabilities plod her way through an intellectual thriller that someone like Isabelle Huppert could handle in her sleep without the slightest effort.
Well, dear reader, I have to say I was blown away with Devos in this little Swiss-French thriller that also paired her with acting giant Nathalie Baye. [As an interesting little note, Baye’s previous role was another barely seen French thriller in which she played the Devos role.] Moka starts with the image of Devos (who plays a woman named Diane) silently banging her head against a window. We don’t know where she is, until the camera pans away and we realize she’s in some sort of mental facility. And then the cards that plant the seeds of the plot get revealed: Diane has lost her son Luc in a freak accident where he was fatally involved in a hit-and-run. Since then, time and basically everything has stopped for Diane. Because the perpetrators were never brought to justice, Diane has hired a private investigator to find out about the vehicle that killed her son. She learns that it was a mocha-colored car registered to a woman who lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The woman happens to be Marlene (Baye). Marlene is the owner of a beauty salon, and from the moment both women meet there is a sense of uneasiness in the air. But Diane has other plans, and so does the story: while she is befriending (and getting to know Marlene), she’s also flirting with Marlene’s boyfriend Michel who is selling the mocha vehicle, and at the same time, she also establishes a tentative friendship with Marlene’s daughter from a previous relationship. To add to the whole situation, Diane has met a guy who does deals on the darkside and produces a gun for her, and as a final nail, Diane’s husband eventually appears on stage wondering what has happened to her. Sounds complicated? It’s because it is, and director Mermoud wastes no time in getting into the meat of the action while allowing it to breathe and develop on its own. We wonder where is all this going and how long can Diane keep her charade alive without recurring to cheap solutions. Devos plays Diane as a relentless avenger, but with enough frailty and vulnerability that we wonder if she will carry out her affairs in Lausanne until the end. Baye, her hair bleached a cheap, older woman peroxide blonde, is prickly, suspicious from the get-go, but all reception. She’s a beautician, so she hears stories from her clients, and Diane’s doesn’t ring totally true. Even so, she lets her slowly in and we wonder if there isn’t some agenda . . . or is she being set up for something terrible.
It’s not often that movies feature strong women in leading roles playing complicated characters that dance around each other like samurais waiting to strike. Moka is a complex psycho drama that touches on the topics of grief and loss and the need to mete out personal justice without turning it into exploitation and offers enough twists and turns and even an emotional finale to out-guess aficionados of the thriller genre and leave them satisfied.
Director: Sofia Coppola
Runtime: 93 minutes
There’s a reason Sofia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes this year. Her newest movie, The Beguiled, featuring actors at the top of their game in an escalating battle of wits and female one-upmanship, is a muscular, minimal, bare-bones rendition of the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinen. Coppola’s approach, however, differs greatly from the source in that it refuses to take the Southern Gothic route and strips away all of the excess material, reducing the story to that of its bare essentials: an enigmatic, handsome stranger, and the women who are dying for his attention.
You can practically feel the pages whizzing by in Coppola’s ultra-compact version: her Beguiled flies by at a solid pace. From the word go we’re introduced to the situation at hand: Amy (Oona Laurence), a student and resident at an all-girl’s school run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), comes upon an injured Yankee soldier, an Irishman named John McBurney (Colin Farell) who is basically a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not wanting to leave the man out in the elements to face certain death she brings him to the school where the reluctant teachers — but particularly Miss Martha — tend to his injuries and necessities and give him shelter until he is healthy enough to leave on his own.
While he recovers, McBurney, in a manner so subtle it could almost be missed, starts to affect the women as they gradually find themselves fawning over his presence that, albeit crippled, offers a masculine counterpoint, a chance of water in the middle of the desert. To Martha, he’s a possible partner; to Edwina, a means to an escape; to Alicia (Elle Fanning, wickedly good), a sexual awakening, and to the younger girls, an older friend who listens (although Ii will say I kept thinking there was a slight predatory nature to McBurney’s conversation with Amy.
However their fragile acquaintance can’t last too long, and Coppola manages to keep your eyes riveted onto the screen, waiting for something to happen. And reader, does Coppola deliver. When the carefully constructed facade of harmony gets shattered after a well-timed discovery, pretty much the bets are off, and The Beguiled reveals its fangs that had been up to them carefully hidden. Even then it maintains a drum-tight control over its story, carefully avoiding too much exposition (which works better in plays) and reaches a denouement that could be considered lyrical. This is an excellent, perfect thriller that keeps its passions under a tight management and the appearance of female decorum.
Director: Jon Garano and Jose Mari Goenaga
Runtime: 97 minutes
(4 / 5)
Criminally under-screened when it made its way to US Cinemas in the fall of 2015, Flowers for Ane as it is also known is a quiet mood piece that has parts of a simmering mystery whose arms have a greater arc — namely, that of the one that relates disparate characters to one another via the disguise of a bouquet of gorgeous flowers.
Ane (Nagore Aranburu), a woman in her forties it seems, has been diagnosed with menopause. It doesn’t help that she’s already trapped in a dead marriage, but one day she opens the door of her house to an eccentric gift: a bouquet of flowers, from a stranger. No return address, nothing to attach it to. The flowers become a regular appearance — one bouquet a week — and it’s a cause of embarrassment for her, and places more strain on her marriage. She has her suspicions of who may be sending them, and an accident a coworker suffers, in which a pendant of Ane is found in his car, seals her suspicions.
From then on she pays tribute to her dead coworker, not knowing his wife Lourdes (Itziar Ituno), a tollbooth employee, has seen her leave bouquets of flowers at his memorial. Lourdes has been in a love-hate (or, let’s put it frankly, a hate-hate relationship) with her now dead husband’s mother Tere (Itziar Aitzpuru). Think the comically strained relationship between Debra Barone and Marie Barone, remove the comedy, amp up the passive aggressiveness, and you get the picture. These two women can’t stand each other. How Loreak manages to balance this trio of women who eventually reach a sort of inner peace within themselves — of sorts — is a trick that both directors are keen to pull off; however, the story’s deep symbolism, of people connected by acts of random kindness and the ubiquitous flowers, might be a little too outre to bear, even at a lean 95 minutes. And the final piece of the mystery — that of the sender, and his motives — might reveal there’s more to the story than we’re being told. Even so, Loreak is a solid melodrama about human compassion.
Director: Onur Tukel
Runtime: 95 minutes
Frenemies come together; chaos ensues, and that, in a nutshell, is your movie, still playing in theaters around the country and on VOD platforms. There is a running satire concurrent with the main story that reflects to a larger political climate in which we, as inhabitants of our own micro-cosmos, can’t seem to find a middle ground without wrecking the shit out of each other, but the movie per se is less invested in that unless it’s by occasionally throwing glimpses at the state of affairs abroad and our entries into the wars under the Bush regime.
At least, the extremely appropriately titled Catfight lets its two female leads — Sandra Oh and Anne Heche, both sharp TV comedians — to let loose and really go for roles that are absolutely unsympathetic from start to finish, redeem themselves not an inch even at the face of abject tragedy, and seem to be aware that they’re trapped in an endless loop that skips on its own groove. The women are ex-college classmates and the reason of their dislike is nebulous, if ever mentioned. How they get together is through circumstance: Veronica is a trophy wife living in SoHo and married to a guy who’s just secured a deal with a mid-Eastern nation. He’s in celebratory mode. Serving drinks the party are Anne and her girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone, in a nice supporting touch). Anne is a talented artist struggling in Bushwick, but her paintings are so extremely aggressive — basically red on red violence — that they don’t really sell. Interestingly enough, Veronica gets introduced by cutting her son’s artistic dreams down for something more practical, a thing that will haunt her later.
When Anne and Veronica meet exchanges are in the frosty pleasantries that people who are now essentially strangers share with each other (partly because they have to; partly because since they’re caught in situations they hate, they need to unload the venom on someone, and who better than the old college chum whom you’ll never see again? Think again, girls.
Anne’s humiliation at being put down by Veronica is complete and lands her in a stairwell. Drunk out of her mind, Veronica also winds up there, and both women, angry beyond etiquette, go to blows. The blows, mind you, are of the action variety — so ferocious that you realize it’s not Nicholas Cage or Keanu Reeves kicking the shit out of ten guys at once but two petite New York women. The thing is, Veronica takes a tumble down the stairs after a crucial blow to the head and wakes up two years later. In a hospital. Alone. No family, no assets; she’s basically homeless and dependent on the kindness of her former maid (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who takes Veronica in, introduces her to chambermaid work, and tells her a few less savory things about herself.
It’s here that Veronica learns that luck has been much kinder to Anne, now a famed artist gracing magazines the likes of ArtInfo (the movie uses a variant of the title but you can see where they were going). Anne is now not in struggling Bushwick but in the limelight, planning her first baby with Lisa, and is even more insufferable than Veronica ever was, humiliating her meek assistant Sally (Ariel Kavoussi) for using the color blue. while planing her next exhibit. Who should walk into the exhibit but Veronica, who sees a painting that resembles her. Guess what happens next.
The good thing about a movie like Catfight is that it isn’t trying to sell you a product better or with loftier aspirations that to see two women beat the shit out of themselves and still, somehow, continue ticking like a clock that just doesn’t know when to stop. Tukel amps up the satire by winking at you with the fight sequences, choreographed to death and with sound effects that magnify the sheer ridiculousness of these women’s predicament. Sometimes you need this kind of movie to take you out of the sheer seriousness of it all and deliver a (feel-good? ridiculous) story of women who should stay away from each other. Who cares if these women even evolve past their primal hatred? Anyone looking for a movie where two adversaries come together to sing “Kumbaya” should definitely not check this one out: forget Feud: Bette and Joan; this one is nihilistic, violent fun.
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.
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.
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+]
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]
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+]
And now, a movie that earned loud boos at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and has since divided audiences like separating tectonic plates. You can loudly blame director Nicholas Winding Refn for this, since his art cinema is so out on its own limb that it seems to exist if at all to shock for the heck of it. If you saw his earlier outing, Only God Forgives, you’ll know what I mean: the violence was almost unbearable. I was literally squirming in my seat and had to at one point somewhat disconnect to enjoy the story so I wouldn’t run for the exit. Most people hated that one; I didn’t, because so much of it is choreographed that you couldn’t but realize that this was just a exercise in plasticity, dressed in garish, Giallo colors, and not the stuff of reality. [If anything, 12 Years a Slave, which arrived in the fall of 2013, truly was unbearable, and that was based on actual events, However, leave it to the audience to jump out of their chairs, praise Steve McQueen’s movie, and grant it the Oscar for Best Picture. Strange world.]
The Neon Demon isn’t as violent as Only God Forgives. What it is, however, is a brightly colored nightmare fairy-tale closer to the sensibilities of Snow White. Much of the violence that transpires is off-stage in the shadows, filling the picture with an overpowering sense of portent as our heroine, which also could be our prime villainess, makes her first appearance and attempts a career out of modeling.
Much will be made out of Refn’s choice of topic — already there are speculations that this is a criticism of the world of modeling, where young women not out of their teens are subject to ferocious levels of scrutiny in order to fit a package. The more they fit into a ‘look’, the less human they are, and by the time they reach 21, they’re spat out onto the street, deemed ‘retired’ and ‘too old’ and are thrown into the gutter where they face a life of slow aging. I’ll state that this is the tip of the iceberg. It’s telegraphed much too loudly to be the true reason the story exists; if it were only that (and it’s been done before in TV movies, serials, and films about the brevity of youth in performing, the best being 1950’s All About Eve), this would be a much more basic, cut and dry tale.
Jesse (Elle Fanning, restrained, somewhat a deer in the headlights, but radiant) has arrived to LA’s plastic modeling scene with big dreams. Already a natural beauty, she’s perked up the eyes of Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who warms up to her and Dean (Karl Glusman), a young photographer whose ‘amateurish’ shoots have landed jesse at the offices of Roberta (Christina Hendricks). Roberta would normally send someone like Jesse home without as much as batting an eye . . . but Jesse’s pictures are different. In fact, Jesse herself is different. Only 16, she instructs Jesse to state she’s 19 as 18 is a little too close to barely legal, and before you know it, she’s modeling for professionals like Jack (Desmond Harrington) who in one scene paints her body in gold and does so in a way that suggests she’s merely a dead calf about to be prepped for the slaughter.
And in many ways, it does seem that Jesse, a pure innocent girl if there ever was one, is surrounded by danger. Early in the movie Jesse, who lives in a seedy motel run by a truly creepy guy (Keanu Reeves, who oozes sleaze here), sees her room invaded by a cougar. Scenes of predatory females grouped around her in the guise of two rival models, Sarah (Abbey Lee, previously in Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Jane in Pride and Prejudices and Zombies) casually scrutinizing her natural looks while envying them, are presented with a sense of impending dread. Neither really care for Jesse — and why would they? She’s competition, although Gigi believes she’s a passing fancy and won’t cut it). However, a scene where Sarah and Jesse are competing for a show, where Sarah gets the boot (after displaying her rail thin body to an unnamed fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) turns vicious in a way no one could see coming. And just as Jesse herself begins to assert her own, she comes face to face with the titular demon itself . . . who looks identical to her.
It’s safe to say that in many ways this could be an allegory of what happens when someone who has a magnetic presence that demands acknowledgment. Sarah compares her to the Sun shining in the middle of a cold winter. Ruby is clearly besotted with her. Sarah continues to diss her until she lands an important job. Even Keanu Reeves’ hotel manager has a scene with Jesse involving a knife that is probably one that is most disturbing because of the bloodless assault on a young woman, and that his character goes next door to commit an act of rape and possibly murder against another unseen woman indicates the twisted desires that Jesse herself inspires upon herself.
Nothing however, can prepare the viewer for Jesse’s own sudden turn of character, where she seems to embrace the darker form of love — narcissism. Even when she had said, earlier, “I’m not as helpless as people think I am,” one couldn’t but look at her and think, “Aww. Sure you are.” Her rejection of Dean comes as a surprise, but more so when she accepts Ruby’s help at the moment the hotel manager goes batshit off-screen. Ruby, who placed against the three blond girls comes off rather masculine — a younger version of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall — takes advantage of Jesse’s helplessness to fulfill her own needs, which backfires. Jesse’s rejection, followed by the affirmation of her own beauty and existence sparks a chain of events that is revolting. What happens next is the eye of desire’s Gorgon face revealing itself to the viewer, merciless and hungry. All the portents of dread come alive, and Refn doesn’t content himself by just showing how depraved people can and will act against something they can’t have, but its consequences.
The Neon Demon is the reason cinema pur exists: bold, screaming colors that reek of Stanley Kubrick and any spread of Vogue magazine, the expressive use of faces that recall Ingmar Bergman, a plot that only involves the minimal, and powerful auric visuals make this picture a direct classic coming out of the kind of cinema Dario Argento created with Suspiria. My only quib? It wasn’t depraved enough. It still could have gone one step farther, right into the heart of darkness. Yes, indeed.