Surprisingly, this is Neil Jordan’s first cinema film since Byzantium in 2012. He seems to have spent the intervening years working on two TV series and writing a couple of novels. It’s always good to see him back on the big screen and Greta shares some of the same elements as Byzantium, though the genre base has shifted from vampires to psychological horror with distinctive gothic touches. The principal characters are again played by talented female actors having a lot of fun. As Nick suggested after the screening, Greta is perhaps best described as ‘classy schlock’. I certainly found it entertaining and there might be something else there which a second viewing might illuminate – or not!
The premise is straightforward. Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a young woman down from university in Massachusetts and now waitressing in an upmarket restaurant in New York at a difficult time in her life after her mother’s death and her father’s distant behaviour. She has a flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) who appears to be a follower of ‘wellness’ regimes and the like. One day Frances finds an expensive handbag on the subway and takes it in person to the strange little house owned by Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Erica had warned her not to meet Greta, but initially Frances doesn’t mind the company of someone she sees as a lonely older woman and a social relationship begins. She learns that Greta is missing her own daughter’s company. But the initial companionship won’t last long. Greta is not someone you want to let into your life . . .
Greta is an unsettling film to watch. Although set in New York, the film was shot in Toronto and Dublin and Greta’s house and the restaurant where Frances works are odd locations. The film is shot beautifully by Seamus McGarvey (and presented from a 4K DCP in Bradford) and edited by Nick Emerson – a pair of Northern Irishmen to go with Sligo-born Neil Jordan. The music is by Javier Navarrete who composed for Byzantium and earlier for Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Nick was particularly taken by the sound design by Stefan Henrix. Sound is still and ‘understudied’ aspect of film narratives and on a first viewing/listening I find it difficult to analyse any sequence in detail. What I did notice in Greta was that apart from the very obvious music cueing of certain sequences (which works well I think) there is also a harshness and jarring effect coming through the combination of cinematography, editing and sound effects. From the limited amount of promotional material on the film that I’ve seen, Jordan (who co-wrote the script with Ray Wright, one-time collaborator with both George A. Romero and Wes Craven) wanted to look back to 1980s/90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction. What he seems to have achieved is a strange mix of that earlier period of thrillers sliding into horror with some modern concerns and characters. In this respect the casting of Moretz as the ‘up and coming’ young actor, pitted against Huppert seems a good choice. And while the mise en scène seems to look back, the use of modern phone technologies is well integrated in the narrative.
Once Greta’s behaviour teeters over into the clearly dangerous Jordan cranks up the pace, scrambling through the gears and the last third of the film is highly conventional but presented with real panache and one or two clever turns. It also includes an oddly humorous gruesome moment perhaps inspired by the Korean team working on the effects. Neil Jordan fans will also enjoy the brief appearance of Stephen Rea, the actor who most of all reminds us of Jordan’s early successes.
Greta has received very mixed reviews and similarly mixed responses from audiences. I think it works because Moretz takes her role seriously and plays it for real and Huppert is her usual marvellous self revelling in playing Liszt on the piano and dancing round the strange little room she inhabits. She’s made well over 100 films but I suspect she remembers some similar roles and characters she played for Chabrol. There are holes in the plot and you need to suspend belief but Jordan and his team create genuine excitement throughout the final section. I’m not going to show the trailer as it gives too much away. See it for the performances of the three women.
I never thought that I’d see a Francophone film at the Hebden Bridge Picture House with only 13 of us in the auditorium, especially one starring Isabelle Huppert (perhaps everyone came to the only other screening last week). The issue here is that Souvenir is one of those French films more or less ‘dumped’ in cinemas with little promotion by StudioCanal on its way to a swift DVD release (August 14 in the UK). But what a strange film it is! It may be that the distributor hopes to cash in on Huppert’s high-profile success in Elle. On the other hand, this film was shown at the London Film Festival last October, presumably because the directors previous short films have been released on a BFI collection. If I’d seen it as part of the ‘Love’ section of LFF I would have thought it was out of place – but I would have enjoyed it.
La Huppert plays Liliane, a lonely woman working on a specialised production line in a paté factory. One day a young temporary worker, Jean (Kévin Azaïs – the male lead in Les combattants) recognises her as a singer who, under the stage name of ‘Laura’, once appeared in a Eurovision-type song contest forty years ago. Jean is only 22 and it is his father who has always been a fan, but now the younger man is attracted to Liliane. He wants to resurrect her career. Everything that follows is predictable, but also engaging.
I wondered if this was meant to be a 1930s musical romance presented in the style of . . . a 1930s musical romance. At times it seems very old-fashioned. Its use of colour and its nostalgic feel is in some ways reminiscent of Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) According to IMDb, Belgian writer-director Bavo Defurne has a background in short films and a single feature, North Sea Texas (2011), about young gay romances. Perhaps Souvenir is one of those examples of a small film that Isabelle Huppert supports for reasons of her own. I doubt any other star actor of her magnitude would take it on – or could take it on. It is almost the kind of role that Barbara Stanwyck might have taken (and I can’t think of higher praise than that).
This is a co-production in which different scenes are shot in different European regions so that local funding is triggered. I thought I recognised a riverside scene as shot in Liège and sure enough both Liège itself and the Wallonie Film Fund appeared in the credits alongside Ostende and Bruxelles. I think this is really a Belgian film and I don’t know if this explains the humour. I laughed out loud several times. The music in the film comes mainly from Pink Martini, a US ‘mini-orchestra’ whose players are well-known in Europe. Pink Martini released a 2016 album including the two main songs from the film and the album’s title is the key phrase from the song that Laura/Liliane sings in her comeback, ‘Je dis oui !’ – the woman who says ‘Yes’ to all the charms of her young man. Jean has trained as a boxer and has the muscles to prove it. My guess is that Bavo Defurne (one of the co-writers of the song) is making a reference to that scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (US 1953) when Jane Russell explores a gymful of muscled Olympic athletes on her transatlantic sea crossing.
I can’t claim to know enough about the history of chanson but for me the music in Souvenir seemed more like the 1960s than 1974 (when ABBA won Eurovision, as quoted in the film). Liliane’s song ‘Joli Garçon’ (Pretty Boy) is actually very catchy and it might indeed do well in Eurovision. Defurne uses it skilfully in ‘Souvenir’ – which in turn is the title of the song that ‘Laura’ is supposed to have sung in 1974.
Anything starring Isabelle Huppert is worth watching and, taken in the right spirit, Souvenir is entertaining. The director has said that he hoped to produce a ‘Sunday TV matinee movie’ and that seems a reasonable description – except that in the UK the subtitles will probably prevent it happening.
Three points struck me after watching Elle. The first is that though Paul Verhoeven is in his late 70s, he can still make films with more energy and flair than many younger filmmakers. Second, Isabelle Huppert demonstrates once again that she is in a class of her own when it comes to female actors. Finally, if Elle proves anything it is that the distinction between mainstream ‘entertainment’ and arthouse cinema is not particularly helpful if this film is classed as the latter just because it is not in the English language. Verhoeven doesn’t make ‘art’ movies as such. That doesn’t mean his films aren’t examples of the art of film, rather that he seeks to entertain with sex and violence to the fore. He will also ask questions, sometimes serious questions but there is also the suggestion that he is poking fun at those who think art cinema is ‘better’. I’ve only seen a limited number of the director’s films but I recently enjoyed Black Book (Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belgium 2006) and I’m an admirer of Starship Troopers (US 1997) as a satire on fascism.
I tried to avoid reviews before seeing Elle but afterwards I picked up suggestions of a Buñuelian satire, especially in the use of a formal Christmas party. I guess these reviewers are referring to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I didn’t really think of that connection. Chabrol is mentioned by some because of Huppert’s presence. For me the film was more reminiscent of 1980s films like Dressed to Kill (1980), Fatal Attraction (1987) or indeed of Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct (1992). I’m not thinking of the plots of these films but their sex, violence and ‘glamour’. I did get a strong whiff of Hitchcock from Elle, especially in the dialogue exchange at the end of the film with the Catholic neighbour. The difference is that Huppert as Michèle Blanc becomes the ‘(anti-)hero’ of the narrative rather than the usual ‘woman in distress’ or ‘romantic partner’. For anyone who doesn’t know the outline of the story in Elle, I’ll just note that at the beginning of the film, Michèle is attacked by a masked assailant, but she doesn’t report the violent rape that ensues and only tells her ex-husband and friends some time later. Verhoeven replays the initial rape– I’m not completely sure why we have to see it again, but Verhoeven says the narrative is about the ‘aftermath’ of the rape, so maybe she is thinking it through in the flashback. Michèle’s investigations then initiate a complex sequence of events, including more rapes.
Elle is an ’18’ certificate film in the UK and there is a great deal of sexual violence in the film. The initial rape is brutal (we see it and other similar attacks later) and the use of shocking violence in this way distinguishes the action from what sometimes appears in mainstream cinema as more aestheticised ‘rape’. Isabelle Huppert’s performance then suggests a woman who is able to put aside the pain and the shock of the assault and plan what she is going to do next. In one sense this is a typical Huppert performance. She is able to portray incredible strength of character by doing as little as possible – apart from commanding the screen (and everyone/everything shown in its space). Perhaps it is this that has caused such a controversy around the film. Sight and Sound (April 2017) offered five contributions on the film – an interview by editor Nick James, two ‘comment pieces’ organised as a ‘For’ and ‘Against’ the film’s take on misogyny, a review of Verhoeven’s early work in the Netherlands (arguably more controversial than his Hollywood work) and finally a conventional review. I say ‘conventional’ but Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz write this review together – without any explanation as to why it needs both of them. The review of Verhoeven’s Dutch work by Craig Williams is very interesting and makes me think I should look for more of his films that now appear to be available on DVD with English subs. Verhoeven’s interview is revealing about the production background of the film – its origins as a French novel, the decision to re-work it for an American production and then the shift back to a French production. Verhoeven makes a number of comments about the differences between US and French cinema which I don’t necessarily agree with and overall I’m wary of such interviews since so many directors contradict themselves. I sometimes think they make up answers to relieve the boredom of so many interviews. Still, it’s an interesting read. But the controversy lies in the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ pieces, headlined as ‘Crossing the Line’.
Arguing ‘for’ Verhoeven in this battle over its sexual politics is Erika Balsom and opposing her is Ginette Vincendeau, both members of the same Film Studies department at Kings College, London (one of the most prestigious film departments in UK academia). Ginette Vincendeau is one of the leading authorities on French cinema, whose work I’ve read and used for many years. She argues that Elle:
. . . validates a culture that condones male violence against women, arguing that, deep down, ‘they want it’. The film and its reception are a demonstration of how deeply internalised misogyny is, including by women.
She goes on to argue that Elle is not a rape revenge fantasy nor is it a horror narrative in which the ‘final girl’ kills the monster, but it is a film that plays with the codes of the French thriller and which “deliberately mines French extreme cinema, a genre in which Huppert excels”. I agree with all of that, but I think that when Vincendeau starts to offer readings of different aspects of the narrative, things start to unravel a little. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I would have to contest the argument that Michèle is ‘punished’ as a woman with power, through her portrayal as a ‘castrating woman’. Vincendeau is possibly correct in suggesting that all of Michèle’s relationships with other women are about hostility and rivalry. However, I often find that single scenes/sequences from films stay with me and form the basis for my later readings. The last sequence of Elle seems to refute both the idea that Michèle has been punished or that she can’t develop relationships with women that are positive and comradely.
I don’t know Erika Balsom’s work but the department’s profile of her suggests that she is concerned with cultural studies and visual art/experimental cinema more broadly. She argues that Elle is not a misogynist film. Elle is a film about misogyny. Balsom’s point is that Verhoeven and Huppert recognise the seriousness of rape but also that its gravity comes partly from its banality. Rape is integral to the patriarchal system. The film is a fable or allegory exploring what happens if a woman ‘refuses’ to conform. I don’t want to summarise the piece any further but is an interesting argument that will enrage some readers. I was taken by the closing paragraph in which she writes:
. . . The spurious humanism of Hollywood – with its likeable characters and its ideological attachments to morality, innocence and redemption – is bankrupt. Too often, it serves the very system that Verhoeven recognises as pathological. Instead, Elle, like the cat-witness of its opening shot, stares down the ugly scene with eyes wide open.
Reading over what I’ve written, I discover that I seem to be ‘for’, when I thought that I was somehow caught between the two pieces. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There are two aspects of Elle I haven’t mentioned. One is that Michèle is the co-owner with Anna (Anne Consigny) of a company making videogames – violent, ‘erotic’ games. Most of the game designers and coders are young men who at one point Michèle encourages to produce work that is more arousing in its use of sex and violence. Any of these men could be the rapist from the opening scene. The second sub-plot involves Michèle’s family. Her father is serving a life sentence as a mass murderer who killed many people in the neighbourhood and the then 10 year-old Michèle experienced the aftermath of the murders. This history perhaps explain some of Michèle’s behaviour towards her mother, her ex-husband and her son (now in his twenties). The combination of these two sub-plots perhaps explains why Ginette Vincendeau condemns Elle as a ‘trashy movie’. That’s a difficult term. The film certainly isn’t ‘trashy’ in terms of production values, performances etc. It is sensational and exaggerated and provocative. It seems very much a Verhoeven movie. Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz don’t really address this central controversy around feminism, misogyny and sexual violence directly. They argue that in the final third Michèle, “against all likely odds, turns her story turns into something positively therapeutic in its affirmation”.
The other way to think about the film is in terms of its narration. Nick Lacey was astute about this as we left the cinema, pointing out that Isabelle Huppert is in (nearly?) every scene. She is the sole protagonist – everything happens to her and she responds and initiates the next action. I’d have to watch the film several times to see whether this actually is the case, but it seems so in my memory. If so, what does it mean? It’s unusual for a single female protagonist to control the narrative in this way, especially in mainstream cinema, but possibly not for Ms Huppert. This control does suggest evidence for the argument that Michèle is a woman with power. She effectively narrates the story. In it she is physically and possibly mentally damaged by her experiences but appears to ‘recover’. She has financial power and ultimately the power in the relationships she develops (again possibly at the expense of her mental well-being). Whether her behaviour and her story ‘help’ women in society or challenge patriarchy, is a moot point. I suspect that neither Verhoeven or Huppert see that as their prime objective. They want to do the best professional job they can and in doing so provide entertainment and provoke discussion, which seems reasonable to me. Though I appreciate Ginette Vincendeau’s critique, I do think she makes a mistake in calling Elle ‘trashy’.
Looking at Amazon’s US DVD reviews, I can see a dramatic split in audience responses between the ‘no stars’ and ‘5 stars’. On IMDb the User Rating is 7.3. In the UK, Elle had taken over £650,000 after its third weekend, meaning it is battling it out for the biggest foreign language (non-South Asian) title of the year in the UK with Toni Erdmann. I’d really like to hear other views on the film.
The touring season of film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novels and short stories is a brilliant idea. Organised by Edinburgh Filmhouse and supported by Lottery Funding via the BFI, ‘Adapting Highsmith‘ is offering a range of films which have been showing since July in selected arthouses across Scotland and England. In some cinemas, screenings are still scheduled for September and at the Rio in London in October. Check dates on the tour’s website (which also gives background on each of the films and more about the season).
Eaux profondes is based on a 1957 Highsmith novel with the action transposed from North America to the island of Jersey – a location that can be both Anglophone and Francophone, though this film is confined to French dialogue. Vic Allen (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an artisan perfumier with his own commercial laboratory. His younger wife Mélanie (Isabelle Huppert) appears to be a ‘lady of leisure’ and Vic does most of the parenting of their 8 year-old daughter Marion. The marriage does not appear to be going well. Mélanie provokes her husband at every possible opportunity, flirting with a succession of young men at parties and inviting them to dinner, late night drinking and dancing, literally under her husband’s nose. Vic appears to tolerate this behaviour and calmly tells the men that if he doesn’t like them he may well ‘bump them off’. They don’t know whether to believe him – one of Mélanie’s former conquests has been murdered, but Vic hasn’t been charged. Is this strange marriage for real? Is it a form of sadomasochistic behaviour by the couple? If so who is the dominant/controlling partner? Can the relationship survive in this way or is it heading for a crisis? Perhaps most importantly, what is the impact on Mélanie’s ‘victims’ and the community more generally?
‘La Huppert’ was in her late twenties when she made this film and with her elfin look she might be a very beautiful boy if she wasn’t dressed immaculately in a succession of outfits which, while remaining elegant throughout, she manages to slip out of – sometimes in public. Trintignant was the great lover of the 1960s with a sometimes dark and brooding presence. Here he plays a cuckold who appears at different times to be controlled and composed but at other times to be on the edge of exploding. He is also not averse to flirtation if the opportunity arises.
The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack. The film reminded me of the many medium-budget French films that made it over to the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, characterised by strong casts, attractive locations and a middle-class milieu. Highsmith has always appealed more strongly to European sensibilities and there are aspects of these adaptations that probably wouldn’t work for mainstream American releases – one American IMDB user describes Eaux profondes as ‘disgusting’. I think that the only film from the prolific director Michel Deville to make it over here was La lectrice (1989), but we have seen other bourgeois thrillers/melodramas from two of the directors of these Highsmith adaptations, Claude Chabrol (The Cry of the Owl, 1987) and Claude Miller (This Sweet Sickness, 1977). Both these directors have also made Ruth Rendell adaptations.
Eaux profondes does seem familiar, perhaps because of Chabrol – though there is also that sense that Jim Bergerac, the Jersey-based UK TV detective might turn up at any moment (Bergerac began broadcasts in the UK in 1981). If it was Chabrol, I would expect more about the perfume business. As it is, I think now that more might be made of the couple’s relationship with their daughter Marion – a remarkably well-adjusted and cheerful child given her parents’ strange marriage. The closing scenes of the film deserve more study. I haven’t read the novel but it seems that Deville changed the ending. The film succeeds I think because of the performances. As well as the child it is difficult to think of a stronger couple of actors for this kind of film. Huppert in particular has made so many films that have never made it to UK cinemas or have only appeared briefly. I’m looking forward to her two releases this Autumn in Elle and Things to Come.
I suspect that Eaux profondes might look particularly odd to modern audiences, especially those steeped in the increasingly ‘realist’ police procedurals that dominate TV across the world. A Highsmith narrative is all about the psychology of the characters. What actually happens in this film would fall down immediately in terms of a forensic examination. Sometimes it’s fun to get back to a world of guilt, fear and chance. Eaux profondes is available on Blu-ray in France according to this useful review – but unfortunately not with English subs. Perhaps Masters of Cinema would consider a UK release?