Elle (France-Germany, Belguim, 2016)

Just the ticket

Thrillers are mean to take us out of our comfort zone. If our lives are routine and safe then the urge to feel afraid, whilst in a position of absolute safety, can be a strong one; particularly amongst the young. Director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in creating this discomfort through the visceral portrayal of rape; making us jump in our seats with shocks and squirm in suspense; and, most importantly, he skewers bourgeois ideas by challenging our expectations about women (and reinforcing them, sadly, about men).

That said I’m not sure what say about Elle and that might be the point of the movie. It is a typical Verhoeven film and although I’m not keen on the auteur ‘theory’ in a few cases it is enlightening. His Hollywood films were often provocative: the possible homophobia in Basic Instinct (1992) and misogyny in Showgirls (1995); the sledgehammer satire of Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). On the other hand, Black Book (Zwartboek, Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belguim, 2006) was more straightforward in focusing on the wartime thrills and so may it not be ‘typical’ Verhoeven. Which is one of the problems of auteurism: forcing films into preconceptions.

What provocations does Elle offer? The April issue of Sight & Sound has for/against pieces: Ertika Balsom and Ginette Vincendeau respectively. The brilliance of Elle lies, in part, in the fact that both writers are possibly right.

Roland Barthes described ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts: the former is closed and offers a clear ‘preferred’ reading; the latter is open allowing the reader to ‘write’ their own text; in other words, decide what it means. Elle is a ‘writerly’ film, though all texts are open to an individual’s interpretation some, such as this film, offer much latitude when it comes to trying to pin down meaning.

I suppose, what I am saying, is I’m not sure about what I feel about Elle. And this ambiguous response is what, I think, Verhoeven is after. He’s not offering us pat ideas or a black and white representation of the world but one that requires thought, particularly about areas we don’t necessarily want to think about. At this point stop reading if you haven’t seen the film as spoilers follow and preconceptions about the film are likely to muddy the spectator’s response.

The only preconception I had for the film, apart from the baggage of Verhoeven, was that it was a rape revenge thriller and Huppert was brilliant (of course). I also thought, probably because it was feted at Cannes, it would be more arthouse than commercial. Huppert is brilliant but, even though it started with a rape, it doesn’t follow the revenge trajectory (this rewriting of the genre is one of the most interesting aspect of the film) and whilst it is a commercial film it is far too unsettling for 21st century Hollywood (early ‘70s Hollywood might have made it) and it’s not surprising that Verhoeven could find no A-list actors to pay the Huppert role as he had intended it to be an American film. He had Nicole Kidman in mind; her glassy fragility would have offered a very different performance to Huppert’s indestructible visage. Kidman may have played the character as more neurotic than Huppert which would work against most of the film (or at least the film as it appears with Huppert) but might have made the film’s conclusion more convincing (except I’m not sure he wanted it to be convincing). I apologise for the lack of clarity but ambiguity is the response the film encourages.

Michèle is raped in the first scene and it is surprisingly restrained in the way it’s filmed (for Verhoeven) but that’s only because we return to the event on two more occasions where the restraint is undone. Then Michèle clears up the smashed crockery; doesn’t inform the police; does not tell her friends until a few days later. So it is immediately clear that we are dealing with a very unconventional kind of ‘she’ . This is reinforced when we find she’s the co-owner of a video game company that produces texts that include rape as part of the gameplay. She’s forthright in telling her mother to look her age and not play with toyboys; she also tells her son he’s been duped by his girlfriend and that the baby isn’t his (based on skin colour) while everyone else coos at the newborn. Although she is hard it is clear that she’s also protective of her son. Her decisiveness is clear including the fact that left her husband after he hit her, though they remain friends. This friendship does not stop her gleefully driving into his car when she’s parking next to it.

The rape-revenge tag would suggest that Michèle would spend the film tracking down her assailant but while she does take measures to seek out who assaulted her, this isn’t the prime narrative thrust. We are observing her life in the aftermath of the rape and we’re not invited to like her; she’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and her sexual tastes appear to be unconventional (which may make her more likeable – that depends upon you). She’s a member of the bourgeoisie, classical music is prominent in her home and she gives dinner parties. Some commentators have mentioned the film’s debt to Bunuel in the portrayal of these parties but they owe more to soap opera, with their bickering, than surrealism. The point is that, other than her friend Anna, there are no wholly likeable characters in the film; a bit like real life then. The men, in particular, are pretty rancid and it ironic that the weakest of them all should be the one that… That’s a spoiler too far.

Motivation for Michèle’s refusal to engage the police is explained through her serial killer father who was caught when she was 10; she was even implicated in the psychotic slaughter of 27 people. Her father, who’s seeking parole 40 years after the event, killed after he was preventing from blessing the children of the village. The Catholic faith also looms in the devoted neighbour who wants to watch the Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve during one of Michèle’s parties; at least one of which was thrown to get at her ex-husband’s new (younger) girlfriend.

As you can see, there’s lots going on but it is adeptly welded together until the final scenes. As a thriller it’s very effective: I jumped three times which is a record for me in my fifties. However, the ending… pat resolutions abound so much so that I doubt Verhoeven believes we should take them seriously and the last shot, of a reconciled Anna and Michèle deciding to live together, walking arm in arm though a cemetery must be a joke… isn’t it?

 

Enemy of the State (US, 1998)

They ARE all around us

They ARE all around us

I really enjoyed this film when it came out and have used it in the classroom. I wondered how it stood up given the Edward Snowden revelations about how our online and telephonic presences are surveilled and the answer is ‘very well’. That’s because it’s a superbly scripted (David Marconi), shot (Daniel Mindel), directed (Tony Scott) and performed thriller. The cast is stellar and Will Smith’s malleable charm works well against Gene Hackman’s flinty cynic. I was gripped and it’s telling that the spooks could penetrate our lives fully at the end of the 20th century and appalling to know what they are doing now see Citizenfour.

Classe Tous Risques (Consider All Risks, France-Italy, 1960)

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Released just before Belmondo was unleashed upon the cinematic world in Godard’s Breathless, Classe Tous Risques is a fascinating glimpse of mainstream French film but not in the form of Truffaut’s ‘old man cinema’. In 1954 Francois Truffaut’s polemic, that heralded auteurism, was published in Cahiers du cinema. Here he railed against the ‘cinema du papa’; in other words it was a young man’s moan against the boring mainstream. He called for the auteur to give a personal vision that was cinematic, rather than script bound. It wasn’t until Truffaut, and the other directors of the nouvelle vague, began making movies at the end of the decade that his vision was fulfilled.

Claude Sautet, who became commercially successful in the 1970s, was picked to direct by the star Lino Ventura who plays a gangster having a ‘last hurrah’ as he makes his way back to Paris with his young children. The direction is good, the scene when Belmondo is arrested is great, but what struck me about the film was the use of location filming. Clearly they were shooting on the street with lightweight equipment, so important to the ‘new wave’, and the passerbys are ‘working’ as free extras.

The hardboiled narrative, based on a José Giovanni novel (he also co-scripted), is engaging enough and the performances are excellent.

The Black Panther (UK, 1977)

The bad old days

The bad old days

I’d never heard of this film, a reconstruction of ‘black panther’ serial killer Dennis Nielsen’s grim crimes, despite the fact it apparently stimulated a mini moral panic on its release. John Patterson’s excellent article fills in the background so I’ll limit my comments to a few observations.

The first thing that surprised me was the credits that announced this was ‘A film by Ian Merrick’; I thought that habit started later – perhaps a reader could comment. Merrick had some justification, unlike most of today’s director’s, for this ownership as he also produced. The film recreates, it says as accurately as possible and I have no reason to disbelief, how Nielsen moved from petty theft to murder and finally kidnapping. I certainly remember Lesley Whittle, his victim, 40 years later; no doubt due to the coverage the case received at the time. The film shows that the press, in search of a story, interfered with the ransom pay-off, possibly with fatal consequences. Of course the press wouldn’t do that now… News of the World hacked the abducted Milly Dowler’s phone not so long ago so they probably would.

The film has the authentic drabness of the ’70s, though it only seems like that in retrospect, at the time (as a teenager) it seemed fine to me. They were turbulent times in the UK: the electricity cuts caused by the 3-Day working week; IMF bail out; numerous strikes; the enthronement of Thatcher as PM. The last event, of course, was the worst as it has had a lasting effect through the neoliberal policies that have become the received wisdom of economics. Donald Sumpter is good in the role of Nielsen and Debbie Farrington is affectingly ‘innocent’ as his final victim. The ending, presumably based on fact, is truly bonkers: Nielsen is finally apprehended in a fight in front of a bemused group of people outside a chippy. It’s good that the BFI have brought this film out of the wilderness.

The French Connection (US, 1971)

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin's febrile direction

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin’s febrile direction

In the posting about The Sugarland Express I mentioned how, in the early ’70s, the Hollywood studios were not afraid to back innovative films (though this was more through desperation than a love of art); The French Connection is another example of what happens when talented directors get to call the shots. In this case, William Friedkin, who won a Oscar (not necessarily a sign of brilliance) for this film which was a box office hit. He followed up, two years later, with The Exorcist; he was on a roll.

I hadn’t seen the film for some time and am delighted to report it stands up well 44 years after its release. It’s justly famous chase sequence is still absolutely gripping. The use of sound is very striking, there’s no music and although we can see Hackman’s Popeye Doyle screaming ‘Get out of the way!’, or some such, through the windscreen we can only hear the car’s horn and squealing tyres. The tension of the chase, intercut with the train on which his quarry is seeking to escape, does not need music to boost the audience’s feelings.

The use of locations also stands out: a wintry and grotty New York. Clearly they’d chosen the shittiest places to film: these certainly weren’t ‘good old days’. I suspect the TV series Kojak (1973-8) took its cue from the film; at the time it seemed the epitome of realism.

The cast is excellent but the film is driven by Gene Hackman, possibly his greatest role in a great career (also awarded an Oscar). He is a total scumbag but wedded to getting the ‘bad guy’.  I hope I can catch the sequel again; a film that, when I saw it in the early ’80s, I thought to be even better than the original.

It’s dangerous to say that Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore because fogeyism is never a good form of criticism but I suspect it’s true. I recently saw the well regarded (independently produced) Nightcrawler (US, 2014), where Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a great performance as an ambulance chasing cameraman, but I was unimpressed. Maybe it is my cynicism, I wasn’t surprised by the film’s satire as it’s obvious ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is the tabloid TV philosophy, as I didn’t think the film was showing me anything I didn’t know (Riz Ahmed’s also great in it by the way). I’m not knocking it, at least it was trying to say something and it is worth seeing.

Calvary (Ireland-UK, 2014)

Crisis of religion

Crisis of religion

It’s impossible for an English atheist to understand the impact/stranglehold the Catholic Church had upon Eire until recently when the ceaseless revelations of scandals undermined its authority to the extent that Gay marriage was easily approved in the referendum earlier this year. Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) had shown the disgusting treatment of young women, who were pregnant out of wedlock, up until the 1980s. John Michael McDonagh’s film (like Mullan he scripted and directed) puts the pedophile priests in its sight and, with a brilliant narrative set up, starts with a ‘confession’ that Father James (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson) will be killed the following Sunday because he is a good man. This, the perpetrator feels, would be a justice of sorts. The small west coast town setting is full of ‘characters’ and James spends the week deciding what to do.

McDonagh’s debut was the well-regarded (though not by me) The Guard (Ire, 2011); Calvary suggests he might be a special talent. The slightly flippant humour that runs throughout (one priest reads, boggle eyed, The God Delusion) might have derailed the seriousness with which the film is intended to be regarded; fortunately it works to relief the ‘heaviness’ of the crimes committed by the clergy. Child abuse is used too often as a ploy to shock; in Calvary the abuse was real and by approaching it tangentially McDonagh offers us powerful insights into the relationship between ordinary people and the Church in the aftermath of the scandals.

Clearly actors, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s son, Dohmnall in a cameo, are keen to work with McDonagh. Calvary shows us why.

Eden (US, 2012)

Men's entitlement to women

Men’s entitlement to women

A film about sex trafficking would fit readily into exploitation film and so it was a relief that director Megan Griffiths, who also co-scripted, avoided the potential for salacious representation and simply focused on the degradation. It’s based on Kim Chong’s, a Korean-American, true story of abduction and induction into sex slavery in the American South. Ex MTV-presenter, Jamie Chung, brilliantly fills the role from bewildered teen to one who will do whatever is required to escape. The fact that the other women are under-characterised may be intentional and reflect their submission to their exploitation. Matt O’Leary is similarly excellent as the guy running the operation, under Beau Bridge’s corrupt eye; O’Leary captures the junkie’s twitch brilliantly.

Ostensibly the film is a thriller, however Kim’s resistance is long-developing which works against the genre. Correctly, the ‘real life’ source material over-rides the genre’s prerogative and any audience frustration that Kim isn’t fighting back enough works to enhance the feeling of entrapment. Griffiths is excellent in her representation of men, most of whom have no interest in women other than as sex objects and recipients of their ejaculate. Men are shown to feel entitled to the women. It seems that society socialises men to believe they are better than women and any woman who challenges that needs ‘taking down’; hence the bile of trolls against any feminist discourse. The fact that all of these men are pathetic in some way, because they cannot take being challenged by a woman, is something that inevitably escapes them.

Eden works both as a thriller and a feminist film that attacks complacency regarding the position of women in our society.

I recently caught up with a brilliant BBC documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes; a look at the comments below the YouTube video (link) gives a clue as to some men’s inability to understand feminism. Laughably (well it’s not that funny) many of them suggest it is men who are victims. The merest challenge to their entitlement of superiority sets them off on egregious rants. I do sense we are at a tipping point, as in the ’60s and ’80s, when feminism is going to make a big impact and, hopefully, not be recouped by patriarchy.