This title from the Japan Foundation Film Tour proved to be a startling and, I think, rewarding experience. In one respect it bears a resemblance to Hollywood films such as those by David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. I’m thinking of something like Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (2010). Like that film, Yurigokoro is based on a novel, Nan-Core by the horror/crime writer Numata Mahokaru. It’s common for Japanese features to be based on novels or manga, but there has recently been discussion about a new genre in Japanese popular literature known as iyamisu (eww mystery). This is the kind of mystery novel where the reader involuntarily gasps ‘Eeuw!’ or ‘Ugh’ at a description of something grisly. I try to read examples of contemporary Japanese crime fiction and I would argue that a writer like Kirino Natsuo is linked to this current cycle with her novels Out (1997) and Grotesque (2003). The most notable film based on an iyamisu novel by Minato Kanae was Confessions (Kokuhaku, Japan 2010) – a popular title in the UK. Watching Yurigokoro I was also reminded of the films of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1950s-1970s which we saw in Bradford a few years back. Finally on the background, I’ll note that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (which became the David Fincher film) was categorised on its publication in Japan as part of the new cycle.
But ‘Enough!’ you are shouting. What is Yurigokoro about? You’ll note that there is no English title and that’s because ‘Yurigokoro’ is a made-up word, a child’s mis-hearing of the technical term for her problem. Little Misako is frightened of the world around her and needs something to give her confidence. Tragically it appears to be only death or pain that can give her confidence and as she grows up she becomes involved in a couple of deaths that could be construed as accidents. The film’s narrative moves backwards and forwards in time in a nonlinear fashion and as well as Misako we are introduced to a young man, Ryosuke (Matsuzaka Tôri) driving his fiancée to the summer café he has opened in a tourist spot in the forest. Suddenly he accelerates and frightens his partner before slowing down again when he sees her distress. At the café he introduces her to his father Yosuke (Matsuyama Ken’ichi), but a little later she disappears in a mysterious way. Ryosuke is also shocked to discover that his father has terminal cancer. A little later when he visits his father he finds a diary in his father’s room and starts to read it. The first line of the diary includes the statement that “I have never had a problem with killing people” (I don’t remember the exact words). Unlike a shocked but intrigued Ryosuke, we have some inkling who might have written such a line and soon we are back with a now adult Misako (Yoshitaka Yuriko).
I won’t spoil the narrative any further but I will say that the violence escalates such that one scene featured so much blood that I think someone in the row behind me fainted (and I, and the woman next to me, watched the scene through our fingers). Sheffield Showroom warned punters at the box office that there were violent scenes (because festival films aren’t certificated). This would be an 18 in the UK – but it is listed as PG-12 in Japan!
I noted in the opening credits that the film was distributed by one of the original ‘major studios’ in Japan, Nikkatsu in conjunction with another memorable studio brand Toei. Toei-Nikkatsu appear to have focused on releasing major genre pictures in the last few years. Yurigokoro was released in September 2017 in Japan, making an entry at No. 8 in the chart but only lasting two weeks before disappearing from the Top 20. I suspect that the film earned more from video and streaming services. This seems about right for an adventurous genre movie with an experienced cast and crew. I think director Kumazawa Naoto manages to hold together the different elements in this very complex film very well. He co-wrote the screenplay with the novel’s author. The cinematography by Imamura Keisuke also works well to distinguish the noirish world of Misako with the clean and airy world of Ryosuke. I guess both the make-up artists and Matsuyama Ken’ichi the actor deserve credit for ageing Yosuke so well from flashbacks to the present.
Despite the gruesome scenes this was a surprising and rewarding night out at the pictures and shows once again the diversity of films from Japan. I’m always grateful for a chance to see these films from the Japan Foundation.
Original Japanese trailer (no English subs):
Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!
Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?
The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:
a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’
That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.
With John McGrath writing the script you can be pretty confident there will be a sensible political message and this thriller (well, generically it’s not quite clear, but thriller might be the best category) is both of its time and about a system that is still with us.
At the start, where Nicol Williamson’s protagonist (Marler) is having ‘rough sex’ with his wife to be followed by aggressive driving of his Jaguar, I thought we were in a gangster film. It has a similar look to the concurrent Performance (UK) and shares the time’s love of exaggerated zoom shots; both had major studio backing: Columbia and Warner Bros. respectively. However, it soon becomes clear he’s a go-getting executive (not so different from a gangster really). However, he has to return to his roots, a Liverpool that still has pre-war housing and bomb sites, as his father’s ill.
Unsurprisingly, for he’s been living in Virginia Water in a massive detached house, he finds Liverpool’s anti-establishment ethos gives him perspective. On his return south he gatecrashes his wife’s dinner party (it is in his own house), drunk, and tells the pinstriped tossers what he thinks of them. The class tensions remind us that although the 1960s were more egalitarian than the decades before, as McGrath makes clear, the ‘old order’ is still in charge.
Apart from the distracting zooms, Jack Gold‘s direction is confident. He shoots crowd scenes well and there’s a great moment at a wrestling match where the contestants suddenly realise that the audience has erupted into a riot. They stand together bemused, watching the mayhem. McGrath was born in Birkenhead which vouches for the authenticity of this portrayal Liverpool.
Williamson’s career was ended by drink but he’s a formidable presence in the film, even if it is difficult to understand why he has such a ‘way with women’ (the misogynistic tones are of its time). Rachel Roberts is great as a ‘good time’ mother who clearheadedly knows what she wants and what she can get.
Apparently McGrath suggested that his script prefigured Thatcherism and it’s true that the ruthless corporate culture is still with us, evidenced by the CEO of Bet365 paying herself £217m in 2017.
Incarnation is the latest DVD release by Matchbox Films. It’s a first time effort by Filip Kovacevic, a 27 year-old maths graduate who also produced and co-wrote this low-budget film. The basic narrative concept he uses is the ‘time loop’, a familiar idea that can be applied to various generic narratives. The few reviews I’ve found of the film refer mainly to American films and to science fiction. That’s not surprising perhaps and many young filmmakers worldwide look to major Hollywood product for inspiration. I haven’t seen many of the American films reviewers reference (such as Looper quoted on the poster below) but Source Code is an interesting comparison, though the vast difference in budget and therefore lack of stars and effects pushes Incarnation in a different direction.
The basic premise is that a young man (played by Stojan Djordjevic) wakes up on a bench situated at a junction of five pedestrianised streets in the centre of what I assume is Belgrade. He doesn’t know who he is and he hasn’t made much progress in working out his situation before four men in black suits and white shirts wearing white face masks corner and shoot him. After a few seconds of blank screen, our hero wakes again on the same bench and the cycle is repeated. It takes a few more loops before our hero begins to make some progress, realising eventually, for instance, that there are five potential escape routes.
The film I was actually reminded of was Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola, Run, Germany 1999). In that film, the cycle is only repeated three times and the ‘chase’ is about delivering a sum of money in time so Lola can save her fiancé. I was reminded perhaps by the running through the streets of Belgrade (instead of Berlin), but also by the sense that the film was like a videogame (much discussed in 1999) with the central character ‘learning’ each time and improving his/her chances of success. Much depends on the other characters on the street – and whether they are part of the same fictional world as the hero. In Incarnation, our hero does learn something from other characters, though never enough to fully understand what has happened – he’s going to have to work that out himself. The videogame references are strengthened by the clues the protagonist finds (which will perhaps take him to the ‘next level’) and by the pounding score for the chase sequences. I’ve no intention of spoiling the narrative pleasure in the film. All I’ll say is that the cycle is completed many times but that the film is relatively short for a feature. Some reviewers have not been satisfied by the ending but I thought it was quite appropriate.
It’s worth focusing on the film’s strengths. Belgrade looks an interesting city and it’s unusual to see a Serbian film in the UK outside a festival. With little money available, Kovacevic must have spent most of it on hunting for locations and then setting his cinematographer Uros Miltunovic loose to create some exciting chase sequences. There are a few scenes set away from the bench and the streets and these too work well. The choice of outfits for the mysterious hitmen also works very effectively. It’s a relief that though their look has been copied from various sources including the Matrix films, there are no special effects as such (apart from the fake blood for wounds!). The film has minimal dialogue and much of it is actually the young man voicing his own hopes and fears. In the UK trailer below the film appears to have been dubbed (the version I saw was subtitled) but I don’t think that’s much of a drawback in a film mainly focused on action.
You’ve seen it all before, so is it worth another go? I’d say yes, partly to enjoy the thrilling camerawork and also to see Belgrade. Stojan Djordjevic is an ‘everyman’ most audiences will be happy to follow. There is also the question of whether a Serbian take on this kind of familiar narrative offers something new. My thoughts certainly turned to that image of the Balkans as a very beautiful region (especially in the sunshine on the streets in a handsome city) which has experienced such terrible acts of violence as little as twenty years ago. Don’t worry, I haven’t given the ending away, but metaphor never seems far away in these kinds of narratives. Incarnation is certainly worth 80 minutes of your time and, who knows, perhaps an hour or two arguing about what it all means?
The DVD is released on 21st May.
I think I must be in the prime target audience for Wind River. It certainly ‘works’ for me but I’m a little wary of certain aspects of the narrative – so, a good film to write about? The film’s pedigree is good as written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose earlier writing on Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) was certainly appreciated in these parts. It also has a strong cast, music by Nick Cave and a snowy landscape (Utah masquerading as Wyoming). It also has antecedents. The idea of a murder investigation on Native American lands was explored in Thunderheart (US 1992), directed by Michael Apted and including in its cast Graham Greene (Canadian First Nations actor) who repeats his role as a tribal police officer in this new film. Jurisdiction on land designated for Native American tribes is a complex business and that becomes one aspect of this story alongside the familiar issue of indigenous peoples and how they suffer through poor education, lack of employment opportunities and loss of cultural identity. A third element that features strongly is the potential ecological/environmental damage to the land via oil exploration and wildlife issues.
The narrative sees an 18 year-old young woman dying as she runs barefoot through the snow on a winter’s night. The explanation of how cold bursts the blood vessels in the lungs and causes the victim to drown in their own freezing blood is a lesson I won’t forget. But what has caused her to do such a thing? She’s found by Cory Lambert, a wildlife ranger played by Jeremy Renner. The local tribal police chief who is, coincidentally, Cory’s father-in-law, does not have the manpower or authority to conduct a murder investigation, so the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands via the Department for Indian Affairs, is called in. When she arrives, agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from Fort Lauderdale via Las Vegas is certainly unprepared for what she is expected to do.
What follows seems like a carefully calculated attempt to cover the bases and confront the issues. The choice of Agent Banner by the FBI seems not to be thought through – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s relatively young, doesn’t know this kind of territory and its culture and is poorly equipped for outdoor work in freezing temperatures. But the decision does open up several narrative opportunities. She can easily offend people, not through malice but through lack of specific experience and knowledge and she needs to rely on the help of wildlife ranger Lambert. Lambert knows the territory, the snow hazards and the people – and he’s closely connected to the victim’s family. He married into the community and his backstory is skilfully woven into the narrative. But he is a white man whose status still raises questions. Against that, one of the most affecting scenes sees Lambert and the dead girl’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water) in one of those almost silent intimate male relationships found in the best Westerns.
I was struck by how much the narrative reminded me of Indigenous Australian films and I’m sure there are Canadian narratives that cover similar issues. The policing of these communities is problematic. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I did find the long final sequence (or rather the penultimate sequence) slightly disappointing in the way the murder mystery was ‘solved’. All the performances by the leads were good, though the heavily typed secondary characters were just too predictable in their behaviour. Andy Willis at HOME in Manchester told me he thought Renner’s role was Nietzschian with its emphasis on survival and the kill or be killed philosophy. I can see this and I was also concerned by the presumably legal killings of predators that Lambert is required to carry out as a ranger. (Wolves are being re-introduced in many parts of Europe but Lambert is sent out to dispatch the wolves on Wind River reservation for killing a steer.) The narrative also seemed to suggest connections (direct or metaphorical) between the animal predators that Lambert shoots and the humans who pose a threat to Agent Banner. I’m still trying to figure out what worries me about this but I guess it’s that everyone in the territory seems to have guns (and often high-powered automatic rifles) and the assumption that a wildlife ranger (or a police officer) can use a gun with so little obvious regulation or restraint. Having said that, the UK government sanctions killing badgers when scientific opinion says it achieves nothing.
Is it a Western? I think so, yes. It’s a ‘contemporary Western’ but I’m not sure it is a ‘twilight Western’ since it has a very different kind of narrative structure and set of characters. In some ways it is quite a traditional Western story as oilmen from Texas arrive on Native American land in Wyoming – and a loner, the hunter, has to deal with them. The revisionist twist is to add the female FBI agent.
Wind River has been widely praised and in the UK it has been a surprising success on a limited release. It is distributed here by STX Entertainment, a new name in cinema for me but I see that in North America it has been active in cinema and TV distribution for a few years. It has significant Chinese investment and is targeting growth in East Asian markets. In the UK and Ireland, Wind River is one of its first releases and the release pattern seems to have been idiosyncratic – in some chain multiplexes, but not others. Even so the film reached the Top 5 in midweek, suggesting a skew towards older audiences. It’s worth keeping an eye on STX I think.
The title Berlin Syndrome is very suggestive in this feature about a young female tourist who finds herself trapped after a casual sexual encounter in Berlin. How will the reference to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that idea that a captive becomes literally captivated by their gaoler, become manifest in the narrative? Not perhaps as you might expect. This is a film adapted from a critically-praised novel by Melanie Joosten and directed by Cate Shortland, who made the wonderful Lore in 2012, a film about a not totally dissimilar young woman in Germany in 1945. I was a little surprised that the script was by a man – Shaun Grant. This does feel like a female-centred narrative and Ms Shortland has several female collaborators on her team. In his dismissal of the film, our old enemy Peter Bradshaw suggests that this is a ‘lite’ version of Room (2015) or the Austrian film Michael (2011) (which I haven’t seen). These are not really sensible comparisons since both of these films feature children as prisoners and even though Room does feature a woman prisoner as well, it isn’t a film about the relationship between a gaoler and his captive(s) since we learn little about him.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman from Brisbane who has come to Berlin on a whim to photograph the architecture of the GDR and hoping for a life-changing experience – but not the kind of experience she walks into. Soon after she arrives she meets Andi (Max Riemelt) an English teacher in a local Gymnasium. They spend a day together and she decides not to go on to Dresden but to spend the night in his apartment. Bad move. The sex is good but when Andi goes to work, she finds that she can’t leave his apartment in an old abandoned apartment block. At first she wasn’t worried to be in this old building, but now she realises that there is no one else about. Even when Andi returns she still thinks it might be a mistake, surely he didn’t mean to lock her in?
Peter Bradshaw’s other condemnation is that this is just a familiar genre narrative with nothing new to say and that Clare is obviously the ‘final girl’ in the horror film right from the beginning of the narrative. It’s true that it does increasingly become a ‘psycho-sexual thriller’, especially in its resolution but also at various moments along the way. The idea of a man holding a woman captive is by no means unfamiliar and as other reviewers have pointed out there are some parallels here with William Wyler’s film of the John Fowles book The Collector (1969). However, the important difference here is Clare’s sexual desire and her vulnerability as a tourist in a strange city. I think it’s quite legitimate to read the film in terms of Clare’s self-discovery – of her resourcefulness and strength as well as her sexuality. It’s also interesting that on the two occasions when she sees a glimmer of hope for an escape, it’s when another woman appears – but I won’t spoil the narrative. Andi is the other central character and we get to see him at school, in his classroom and in the staffroom. We also see him in the company of his father. There is just enough of a hint about his extreme obsession with control peeping out from behind his ‘normality’ as a schoolteacher.
I was impressed by both lead actors. I didn’t think I’d seen them before but researching the film later I discovered that both are very experienced and Teresa Palmer has a mainstream Hollywood career that I’ve missed entirely, though I did see The Grudge 2 (2006), where she played alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. She looks and acts younger than her age in Berlin Syndrome and I did think about how she reminded me of Kristen Stewart (again, something I later discovered is a common reaction). Max Riemelt was in The Wave (Germany 2008), a film I’ve watched several times and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognise him. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ this film and I found Clare’s predicament distressing. I was surprised to find myself thinking about it so much afterwards. The script is carefully written and there are some nice touches that again I didn’t really think about until afterwards – such as Clare’s interest in a book of Klimmt reproductions that makes a re-appearance and Andi’s choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a text for his English class. I also hadn’t thought too much about Clare’s journey from Brisbane to Berlin – an example of that ‘cultural cringe’ that seems still to be relevant in Australian narratives about travelling to Europe to gain experiences beyond Australian suburbia. The thoughts of the women working on the film about travelling alone in Europe are worth reading in the Production Notes. The interesting aspect of the production itself is that it was shot on location in Berlin and then Andi’s apartment was recreated on a soundstage in Melbourne. It’s a seamless fit and this is an impressive production. The film has not been that well reviewed in the UK. I think in some cases it has been dismissed without due attention and I’m glad I saw it. I’ll keep looking for Cate Shortland’s films. If you missed this in cinemas in the UK it’s on Curzon online.
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.