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+]