REVIEW: Elle

22 11 2016

elleFantastic Fest

Both the film “Elle” and its protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle, resist common tropes related to sexual assault (one of which occurs in the opening scene). Chiefly, neither dwells in victimhood or the battle wounds of a survivor. It does not galvanize the righteous anger of the audience back against the perpetrator through the vicarious thrill of revenge.

But here’s the thing: “Elle” is defined more by what it doesn’t do and not by what it does. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke dwell in the murky gray areas of Michèle’s twisted psychology as she herself remains unclear as to how to proceed. She knows that she does not want to call the police, as she believes her position as the daughter of a serial killer would not lead to any semblance of justice. She does not want to make a fuss about the incident or let it overpower her thoughts and routines. But what does she do?

Huppert brings steely gumption to her character, a backbone necessary to even establish the most elementary semblance of realism in “Elle.” Her performance, and the film writ large, seem to lack a consistent, coherent internal logic. With her mental state intentionally obfuscated from us, we must interpolate from her actions. And Michèle’s behavior fluctuates vastly from scene to scene. She may seem alarmed by a prank video game scene depicting her rape to the point of conducting a secret witch hunt … only to turn around and engage in a sexual cat-and-mouse game with her own assailant.

No film is forced to answer to the demands of its viewers for answers and resolution. But when lack of clarity feels like an externality of the film rather than an essential narrative feature, the rules change a bit. The instability and unpredictability of “Elle” become its guiding light and driving force. With scant character detail and no real dialogue with issues, the film can only end in emptiness. Refusing a mode of thought is easy. Proposing a new one creates a much greater challenge, one that Verhoeven, Birke and Huppert do not seem up to fully meeting. B2halfstars

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 15, 2016)

15 09 2016

A few years ago in my film history class, I was assigned to watch the first half of Mark Cousins’ epic historical overview of the medium, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I wound up watching the whole 15-plus hour opus and learned quite a bit about important artists whose contributions to the art form I never even knew. And I also learned that Cousins would have us recognize Paul Verhoeven as one of the major filmmakers of contemporary cinema. Seriously, he devotes a solid 10-minute paean to the subversive qualities of his studio films.

At the time, I dismissed his claim as a lot of pretension and hot air. (The temptation for critics to make a bold statement that you can see something others cannot should not be doubted.) But after watching Verhoeven’s mega-budget 1997 film “Starship Troopers,” I can start to see Cousins’ point. The action flick functions both as good entertainment and subversive social commentary, a dual capability that more than qualifies it as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

“Starship Troopers” takes the form of a traditional war film not unlike something Hollywood would churn out around World War II. As alien invaders threaten the security of the earth, an urge to defend the planet sweeps through students in Buenos Aires. (Yes, they’re all lily-white. This was the ’90s.) Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico, not the brightest bulb, ends up placed on the front lines of the conflict when assigned to the Mobile Infantry. The high aptitude of his girlfriend, Denise Richards’ Carmen Ibanez, earns her a spot in the prestigious starship piloting program.

Rico and Carmen go their separate ways after enlisting, each encountering their own struggles and forging their own camaraderies. The part they play in facing down the threat of “bugs” from Klendathu are interesting, but like in many a great film, the genius comes less from what is told and more from how it is told. Verhoeven cloaks the proceedings in a transparent artificiality, embracing hammy acting as a method for exposing how cinema can glamorize war. Snippets of “news media” interspersed throughout “Starship Troopers” help drive this message home; their throwbacks to the newsreel tradition highlight how thinly veiled propaganda can transmit fascistic and bigoted ideals. More movies should try to pull off this sneaky gambit, allowing you to enjoy what you’re watching while also critiquing your watching in real time.