JUST LIE BACK AND ENJOY IT: Elle, Nocturnal Animals and The Salesman

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rev-3SPECIAL NOTE: the review of Elle is especially riddled with spoilers, but I don’t know really how else to talk about it.
There has been a lot written of late when it comes to the use of rape as a plot point in movies about women. More and more, for many viewers and critics, the use of such a storyline has turned into a cheap device and exploitive way to get an audience, especially men, to tune in.
It may have even become so polarizing that, to some extent, it has made it difficult to write about a film in which sexual assault is central to the action.
For example, I have seen three movies lately that have employed attacks on women as part of the narrative. Two were explicitly rapes, the other a bit more ambiguous. But in the two that were explicit, I couldn’t tell if the rape felt exploitive because that’s what it was, or that it felt exploitive because the political climate today is such that it doesn’t allow it to be anything but.
Elle, the second film this year starring the great Isabel Huppert (the first is the wonderful Things to Come) opens with the sound of a rape over the titles (or could it be simply rough sex?, it’s difficult to tell).


rev-2When the story actually begins, we see Michele LeBlanc (Huppert) on the floor being viciously assaulted by a man in black wearing a balaklava. When he’s finished, he contemptuously uses Michele’s panties to wipe himself clean (this is a detail that will be important in a point I will make later).


When all is done, and the intruder leaves, Michele does… well, nothing really. She calmly cleans everything up, including herself, destroying all evidence of the assault. She even tells a friend that the bruise on her face is from a fall off a bike. She then later, at a dinner out with her ex-husband, her business partner and best friend, and the best friend’s husband, informs the party that she was raped as calmly as if she were ordering the prix fixe dinner on the menu.


The reason for her not going to the police is not revealed until later and is attributed to a traumatic event that happened when she was ten years old, an event some people still remember to such an extent they will throw food on her if they run into her at a café.


Is the reason convincing? I’m not sure.


In fact, I’m not certain that much of the film makes sense, at least when it comes to the assault.


And at the same time, I’m not sure it matters.


The movie is just too compulsively watchable. You simply can’t take your eyes away, no matter how absurd it becomes.


Part of this is due to the screen presence of Huppert, who quite possibly gives the performance of her career (the expectation is that she will finally receive her first Oscar nom this year). No matter how odd, even preposterous, the story might become, she won’t let you go. She’s that compelling.


And as the film goes on, her character becomes more and more a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma. When not being assaulted (not only does the rapist come back, she reimagines the assault twice, one in which she turns the tables on the attacker and beats him up), or stalked by her assailant (in some quite unnerving Hitchcockian scenes), she and her partner run a video game company whose latest product seems to be about an Amazonian woman being attacked by a monster (with sexual overtones). (At one point someone redesigns the scene such that the woman, with Michele’s face, is being anally assaulted by the monster in a scene worthy of a piece of tentacle pornography from Japan).


She also has to deal with a slacker son being cuckolded by his pregnant girlfriend; a husband whose novels aren’t selling so he is trying to sell her on a video game idea; calling off the affair she is having with the friend’s husband because it’s boring (the assault seems to have awoken an aspect of her sexual nature that had heretofore remained dormant); and taking up with the husband of a devout Catholic couple who live across the street.


rev-1And she handles it all with the equanimity of just another day in the life of.


And by the time the whole shebang is over, I just didn’t know what the hell to make of it.


Perhaps at the end, I think that what is eating at me is that the whole thing is just a bit too much of a male fantasy about a woman who gets turned on to some degree by getting raped.


Because in the end, the movie is about a woman who doesn’t do anything about being raped, except to eventually embrace it. And this woman is creating a video game in which a woman is assaulted by a monster. And the woman’s assailant cleans himself with the woman’s panties, leaving evidence behind that would ensure his capture (something that feels as if it would only happen in a fantasy-an attacker so certain he’s going to get away with it that he casually leaves his DNA around as if to dare the woman to report him).


Or maybe it’s about a woman who is constantly assaulted, but instead of falling apart, finds strength in it until she can exact revenge. After all she never falls apart or loses control, never allowing the rapist to control her; she reimagines the rape until she is the victor; and the video story she’s designing has the Amazon emerging triumphant (the anal rape is by the men under her employee, a discovery she also doesn’t let throw her).


Or maybe it’s a male fantasy that got turned into a story about the empowerment of women once Huppert got ahold of the character?


Who knows?


All I know is that I couldn’t stop watching it.


The movie is directed by Paul Verhoeven (which might explain a lot, Basic Instinct anyone?).


rev7When Verhoeven first began his career in The Netherlands, he created an exciting number of more personal movies including Turkish Delight, Spetters, The 4th Man and Soldier of Orange. Then he came to America where, as if in punishment for his sins in making quality films at home, he was then given dreck to make. And dreck he definitely made of it.


Then in 2006, he returned to Europe and attempted to wed his new American studio sensitivities with his earlier output. The marriage resulted in a preposterous melding of romantic kitsch to an over the top thriller about the Dutch killing Jews in WWII.


Elle is far superior to the aforementioned Black Book. It’s better written (by David Birke from the novel Oh… by Phillipe Djian), much tighter as a story, and kept to a more acceptable decibel.


I still suspect the romantic aspect is still kitsch, but, as I said, it’s just so compulsively watchable.


France’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award category.


For what it’s worth, it might also be noted that the screenplay was shown to a large number of actresses who turned it down immediately upon reading it, not even bothering to think on it.


With Christian Berkel who played the bad Nazi as opposed to the good Nazi in Black Book, looking more and more Teutonic every year (if you don’t believe me, check out Trumbo-he played Otto Preminger).


rev-4The rape in Nocturnal Animals, the new film from writer/director Tom Ford (based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) is committed off screen and as part of a fictional story within a story. But even at being twice removed, it still feels a bit exploitive.


Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, the owner of a highly successful art gallery, successful because she is brilliant when it comes to spotting good art.


Her marriage to handsome hunk Hutton (Armie Hammer) is floundering though she refuses to admit it to herself. She also is losing interest in art, finding less and less meaning in it.


Left alone one weekend, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband and novelist Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man she divorced because he wasn’t successful enough (even though she told herself that didn’t matter when she married him).


The manuscript is the story within, a frightening tale of a man (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose family is attacked one night while traveling a deserted highway. His wife and daughter are abducted and raped. He gets away. Later, the bodies of his wife and daughter are found. But a Texas law enforcement officer offers him a possible way to exact justice, if not revenge.


So basically we have two stories. The ex-‘s novel, which is a rather fascinating neo-noir, buoyed by a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the officer, that probably could stand on its own. In fact, had it been a film on its own, it might have been even stronger than it is here.


The problem is the other story, Susan’s story about a successful woman who is unhappy. Why is she unhappy? Well, for the main reason most women in film are unhappy. They can’t find the right man to marry.


rev-5No, I’m not kidding. This is the 21st Century and the filmmakers can still only come up with the motivation for a woman to be unhappy is because of a man.


And because her story is sterile and emotionally uninvolving, it tends to trivialize the story within by making it subservient to Susan’s story. The more interesting and successful neo-noir story is made less crucial by counterpointing it with a narrative having a glossy 1950’s Joan Crawford sensibility.


With Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Vronsky in Anna Karenina and Joe in Alfred Nobbs) in a change of pace role as the psychopathic killer; Michael Sheen in a blink and you miss him role of a gay husband; and an excellent Laura Linney doing a first rate Ladybird impersonation as Susan’s mother.


rev-6Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi first made his name over here with his beautiful and brilliant film A Separation, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2012. Since then, his films have received a regular release, including an earlier film About Elly.


Though still quite popular both here and abroad, I have not responded to his other films the way I did A Separation. Though well made, they tended to fail a bit when it came to the screenplay, with plotting that tended to feel a bit clunky to me.


I’m afraid I feel the same way for Farhadi’s latest work, The Salesman. In it, stage performers Emad and Rana, husband and wife, who are starring in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, find their lives in upheaval when one night Emad returns home to find Rana having been taken to the hospital because she was physically assaulted.


The set up is fine, but from this point the story stopped working for me. And this may be due to cultural differences. In the U.S., as the basic premise is set up here, the police would have been called in at some point. If not by the Rana, then by the neighbors, if not the doctors and nurses at the hospital.


It really wouldn’t have been discussed. It just would have happened.


But in The Salesman not only don’t the characters contact the authorities, they slowly get rid of all the evidence without any clear or understandable reason.


This does lead, though, to some interesting Hitchcockian scenes as Emad tries to find the perpetrator himself. But without a proper set up, these scenes never really work.


Again, I’m ready to agree that this might be due to cultural differences, but the plot never felt convincing to me.


If the wife had been raped, I might have accepted the story more. Even in the U.S., people still won’t contact the police in cases of sexual assault. But by the end of the story, when it’s clear the assault was only physical, the story simply made no sense.


In addition, the connection between Death of a Salesman and Emad and Rana’s through line completely eluded me.


With Taraneh Alidoost as Rana and Shahab Hosseini as Emad.


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