Mrs. Harris, Mrs. ‘Arris, and Their Trips to Paris

Even as someone who’s only casually familiar with Angela Lansbury’s career, I was saddened to hear of her recent passing.  I’ve never successfully watched an entire episode of Murder, She Wrote without drifting off to sleep or off to another channel; the most experience I have with her prestigious singing career is hearing her voice a cartoon teapot; and yet the TV interview clips memorializing Lansbury on local news broadcasts last week had me instantly crying for reasons I can’t fully articulate.  She just seemed like such a kind, thoughtful, talented person that the world was lucky to have around – a very particular, gentle flavor of sweet that’s been draining from our cultural palate.  Online posthumous praise for Lansbury has also helped me see new, nuanced shades to her persona, since I had only previously seen her typecast as a lovely old biddy for all of my life.  Between reading John Waters’s real-life anecdote of bumping into Lansbury at an NYC fetish club to watching her bratty debut in Gaslight and listening to her get gruesome in Sweeney Todd, I now have a better rounded appreciation of who she was a person & a performer; and I feel like crying all over again.

Getting acquainted with the tougher, saucier side of Angela Lansbury has only enhanced my appreciation of her frothier performances as well.  I’m particularly thinking of her turn as the Cockney-accented Mrs. ‘Arris in the 1992 made-for-television adaptation of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novel that was adapted again for a much lusher production this year.  The 2022 version of Mrs. Harris is played by Lesley Manville, who I’m used to seeing as a heartless hardass in projects like Harlots & Phantom Thread.  She’s a big-ol’ softie in her new starring vehicle, though, leaving all of the ice-queen viciousness to her villainous co-star Isabelle Huppert.  Manville delivers the exact sugary sweet, kill-em-with-kindness defiance you’d expect from Lansbury in the role, playing Mrs. Harris as a human doormat who gradually learns to stand up for herself without ever stooping to the cruelty of the world she seeks to change.  What’s hilarious is that Lansbury’s Mrs. ‘Arris is a much tougher customer.  You get the sense that she could easily drink & swear Manville’s Harris under the table, tinging the role with a touch of the Cockney sass that kickstarted her career as a teenager in Gaslight.  She’s still a total sweetheart, but there’s a sharpened edge to her character that’s missing from the newer, higher profile adaptation.

While Lansbury got to play Mrs. ‘Arris with a little grit & gristle (reflected right there in the accented title), Manville got to be in the better movie.  Both adaptations maintain the novel’s basic premise that a kindly British housekeeper splurges her life savings on a couture Dior gown in Paris, much to the frustration of couture’s snootiest gatekeepers.  That premise is just all there is to the made-for-TV version, which wouldn’t be much of a movie without Lansbury’s loveable screen-presence babysitting the audience between commercial breaks.  Meanwhile, Manville’s Mrs. Harris essentially becomes a union organizer—inspired by an ongoing trash strike that’s only mentioned as a traffic obstacle in the Lansbury version—radicalizing both the workers at Dior and herself.  Both versions of Mrs. Harris are lauded for being kind in a cruel world, but only Manville gets to learn to prioritize herself in the face of oppressive class & gender politics; she’s in a drama, while Lansbury is in a sitcom.  The most telling difference between the two films is when a Parisian love interest warmly refers to Mrs. Harris as “Mrs. Mops” in honor of the maid that cleaned his room at British boarding school.  In the made-for-TV version, it’s played as a sweet gesture; in the theatrical version it breaks her heart, and you desperately want to see her punch the cad’s throat.

I don’t want to exalt the 2022 version of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as some high standard of artful cinema that the made-for-TV version can’t live up to.  Both adaptations are the exact kind of passive British entertainment meant to be enjoyed under a giant blanket with an empty mind & a nice cuppa.  Only the theatrical version has a true emotional hook to it, though.  When Mrs. Harris inevitably gets the pretty dress she wants, the movie just works on a level that the 90s one can’t – joining “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rhianna” on the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry.  Lansbury doesn’t need a good movie to hit that emotional trigger, though.  I can apparently watch 30 seconds of her doing a press junket interview with Entertainment Tonight and well up with tears in the same way.  Her Mrs. Harris movie didn’t need to be especially “good” to be worthwhile; her sweet-but-secretly-tough presence was enough.  All that said, there’s a much wider, brighter world of Lansbury projects out there I should have prioritized before watching her pretty-dress movie, especially now that I have a better handle on who she was.  And maybe I should start with forcing myself to fall in love with detective-novelist Jessica Fletcher, who was likely an even tougher customer than Mrs. ‘Arris; I just have to stay awake long enough to get to know her.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bedroom Window (1987)

Steve Guttenberg has a knack for playing silly characters.  Whether he’s roller-skating the streets of New York City in Can’t Stop the Music or goofing off as a wacky cop in Police Academy, Guttenberg’s natural comic essence always has a way of making me smile. How could he not with those innocent brown eyes and big rosy cheeks? In 1987, Guttenberg did something completely out of his realm and starred in Curtis Hanson’s psychological thriller, The Bedroom Window. To my surprise, he did a damn good job in what was essentially his first serious role in a major motion picture.

In The Bedroom Window, Guttenberg plays the role of Terry, a young professional having an affair with his boss’s wife, Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert). During one of their trysts, Sylvia witnesses a woman being attacked from Terry’s bedroom window. Thankfully, the assailant flees the scene after the woman begins to scream and a couple of people go out into the street to help her. Shortly after the incident, a woman turns up dead not far from Terry’s apartment, and Terry feels obligated to tell the police about what was seen from his bedroom window when the prior attack occurred. The only problem is that Terry didn’t actually witness anything; only Sylvia saw the attack. To protect Sylvia and keep their affair under wraps, Terry gets as much detail about the indecent from Sylvia as he possible can, and he lies to police about being a witness. From this point, Terry’s life goes to hell in a handbasket.

The surviving victim from the attack Terry fake-witnessed is a young waitress named Denise (Elizabeth McGovern), and she meets Terry when they both attempt to pick out the attacker from a police lineup, which they are not able to accomplish. One of the guys in the lineup, Carl (Brad Greenquist of Pet Sematary fame), sort of fits the description that Sylvia gave to Terry, so Terry does his own investigating. After following Carl in secret, Terry becomes positive that he is the attacker, and he immediately tells the police that he suddenly “remembered” seeing Carl attack Denise. He just keeps creating lie after lie to put Carl behind bars. Terry gets himself into this massive web of lies for two reasons. One reason is that he wants to protect Sylvia and report vital information that could potentially get a killer of the streets. The other reason, the more selfish reason, is that Terry wants fame. He wants to be the reason Carl goes behind bars, saving women from being murdered and assaulted. Unfortunately for Terry, everything sort of blows up in his face.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about this film is Guttenberg’s acting and McGovern’s surprising takeover of the screen. Guttenberg’s inherent innocence was vital for the role of Terry. Regardless of the douchey things that Terry does, we can’t help but be on his side. We want him to come out of this mess as the winner. If an actor that wasn’t as likeable as Guttenberg played Terry, The Bedroom Window would have played out very differently. As for McGovern, for the first half of the film, she’s in the background. We only know her as the victim of an attack, and she shows up in scenes very sparingly. Towards the latter half of the film, she becomes a total badass and plays a huge role in taking down her attacker. Of course, she and Terry become somewhat of an item, which is such a cliché, but you can’t help but love them.

The Bedroom Window is far from being one of the top films in the thriller genre, but it’s a good watch. There’s enough mystery and edge-of-your-seat moments to hold your attention until the very end, and most importantly, it’s got Guttenberg.

-Britnee Lombas

Greta (2019)

The camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a dual career revival for its two stars – Bette Davis & Joan Crawford – who had aged out of Old Hollywood’s cruelly small window of use for the in-their-prime actresses, despite their incomparable talents. While the surprise high-profile success of Baby Jane did lead to more roles for the two late-career titans, though, it also typecast them for dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level, all because Hollywood deemed them too old to be fuckable. Davis & Crawford spent the rest of their careers as sadistic nannies, axe-wielding maniacs, and black magic hags – creepy old ladies who were literally, lethally demented. Baby Jane spawned an entire subgenre later coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the ”Grande Dame” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation.” Other notable actresses got roped into the genre as it continued to make money on the drive-in circuit: Shelly Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? & Who Slew Auntie Roo?; Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling; Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; etc. If there’s anything the once-respected British director Neil Jordan accomplishes in his recent cheapie Greta, it’s in reviving the psychobiddy genre for the 2010s, allowing his titular star Isabelle Huppert to chew scenery the way Davis & Crawford had in similar relics of hagsploitation past. The cultural context around Huppert’s casting has changed drastically since the days of the post-Baby Jane psychobiddies; the actor has been allowed to be complex, compelling, and sexy in plenty of better projects in recent years in a way Davis & Crawford weren’t at her age. Still, it’s crystal clear that Huppert is working within the hagsploitation paradigm here. She’s not even emulating the classier end of the genre like Baby Jane or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte either; Greta is more on the level of the Bette Davis pic The Nanny or Crawford’s Strait Jacket: the really trashy shit.

While I am overall positive on this picture as a campy delight, I should be clear upfront; Isabelle Huppert is Greta’s only saving grace. In the film’s earliest scenes, before Huppert’s old-biddy cruelty enters the frame, goings are tough. Between Chloë Grace Moretz’s non-presence as a naïve country bumkin in the big city (even though she’s originally from the small podunk town of Boston?) and Neil Jordan’s severely unfunny misestimation of how young women talk & think, the first half hour of place setting is a cringey bore. Even the early scenes of Moretz & Huppert forming and unlikely intergenerational friendship (and surrogate mother-daughter dynamic) after a chance meeting in the vast anonymity of NYC are alarmingly limp. It isn’t until Moretz discovers that the pretense of their initial meeting – a luxury purse Huppert “accidentally” left on a subway train, luring strangers to return it to her – was a deliberate scam that Greta finally comes alive. The remainder of the film is exponentially more fun as Huppert gradually escalates from clingy grifter to creepy stalker to kidnapper to full-blown murderess. The dialogue never improves as the stakes are heightened, but Huppert brings life to the material through the stubborn will over her over-the-top performance. Watching her flip tables, menacingly “teach” piano as a form of torture, get carted away on a stretcher like Hannibal Lecter, and shout disciplinary epithets like “This is a bed of lies!” to her Misery-like victim is a perverse, persistent pleasure that overpowers the dialogue’s more glaring shortcomings. If nothing else, there’s a whimsical little dance she does – like a child’s improvised, freeform ballet recital – in her violent showdown with veteran Neil Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea that is A+ delirious camp and alone worth the price of admission. I don’t know that I would readily describe Greta as a great movie so much as a great performance, but like with Tom Hardy in Venom, Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, or any number of over-the-top psychobiddy performances in its own genre’s spotty past, the film is the performance. Thankfully, nothing else matters here, because Moretz & Jordan could have easily dragged the material down if Huppert weren’t such a spectacle.

The trick of appreciating Greta as a psycobiddy revival is in affording Huppert’s performance enough time to fully heat up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing during the film’s fun-vacuum prologue, but those who leave the film early will miss out on the joys of watching one of our great living actors indulge in some over-the-top cartoon villainy once she’s afforded the space. There’s even comfort in the fact that, unlike with hagsploitation titles of the past, Huppert has not been locked out of landing more substantial work in better pictures because of her age, which is how the psycobiddy was born in the first place. This is more of a trashy detour for her than a professional dead end, which makes it all the more fun to watch her indulge in a bit of vicious camp at the expense of her wet noodle collaborators, as opposed to feeling embarrassed for her the way we were when the great Joan Crawford was typecast as an axe-wielding maniac despite her legendary cinematic pedigree.

-Brandon Ledet

Souvenir (2018)

In Souvenir, Isabelle Huppert boinks someone a third her age and looks damn good doing it. It’s a story we’ve seen told onscreen so many times before that it could be its own genre. Still, I’m not sure it’s ever been this delightfully, delicately sweet. There are shots in Souvenir of Huppert reading on a bus & eye-fucking a young man that look like they were airlifted specifically from 2016’s somber, philosophy-minded Things to Come, but its overall tone is much closer to the tipsy glamour of a Muriel’s Wedding, complete with extensive references to ABBA. Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as “a woman’s picture.” As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.

Huppert stars as a pâté factory worker (does it get more French than that?) with a limelit past she’d rather not be discovered. She’s drawn out of hiding when a young coworker/amateur boxer catches her eye with a sweetly innocent line of flirtation. Her young beau may be a loser who lives at home with his parents, but he has a kind of dopey charm & a fearless enthusiasm she cannot resist. He also inflates her own ego, recognizing her from her forgotten past as a finalist in the European Song Contest three decades ago (where she lost to ABBA, no shame in that). She’s terrified by his pleas to relaunch her career, but the excitement of pleasing him overpowers her desire to fade into her drab, solitary work & home life. The stakes of revitalizing her vintage career as a pop singer while initiating a love story with a (much) younger man are low, but painful: televised embarrassments, being stood up for diner, hearing herself described as “like ABBA, but not so famous,” etc. As thematically slight as the dual romance & pop star career revival stories might come across, though, the movie is never short of lovely.

Where Souvenir might feel slight in its narrative, it excels in its candy-coated imagery. The film opens in a bath of CG champagne bubbles and emerges into a freshly manicured, absurdly symmetrical world of bright colors & vintage pop music. Even Huppert’s factory job looks like a delicious dream, including countless primly-staged, bird’s-eye-view shots of pâté that should wear you down, but hypnotize instead. I was struck by the Old Hollywood glamour of certain scenes as well, typified by Huppert’s multiple (!) musical numbers & the rear projection shots of our mismatched couple’s steamy motorcycle rides. Souvenir is an inexpensive, lowkey delight, but looks far more appetizing than many films 10x its budget.

While Huppert Boinking Young’ns is almost enough of a repeated story pattern to be its own genre, the European Song Contest indie comedy is a well-established genre with a long tradition of recognizable tropes & narrative beats. Souvenir has a familiar skeleton, but its sugary exterior makes it an exceptional specimen. First off, Huppert looks incredible. Her first appearance is in the glamour photo lighting of a makeup mirror and it never diminishes form there; the camera loves her. It’s nice to see that quality applied to irreverent humor & playful eroticism for once, instead of the pitch-black descents into ennui & cruelty Huppert is usually cast in. Her gracefully unenthused dance moves, nonchalant pop music vocals, and fierce but delicate sexual humor elevate every frame she touches to the point where a movie that should be pedestrian is instead a kind of wonder. Souvenir is not the type of Huppert Boinking Youngsters picture that tends to score high critical marks or Best of The Year accolades, just like how the similarly femme irreverence of The Dressmaker is not the kind of Western that earns that kind of attention. It’s a gorgeous object & a glamorous heart-warmer, though, a subtly impressive, candy-coated dream.

-Brandon Ledet

Things to Come (2016)

As far as recent movies where Isabelle Huppert is isolated and callously mistreated by her family, colleagues, strangers, and a cat go, Things to Come is certainly a more enjoyable viewing experience than the miserable provocation Elle, one I’d be a lot more likely to return to. However, this muted, dryly funny rumination on the loneliness of middle age is not nearly as ambitious or as rawly vulnerable as Verhoeven’s gleeful sexual assault button-pusher, as grotesque as I found that film to be. It’s much more likely to fade into the ether than that career-revitalizing work, like so many pleasant, but disposable indie dramas of decades past. As insignificant as the film can feel in a larger pop culture impact sense, though, its pleasures are always immediately recognizable & agreeable, Huppert’s lead performance being chief among them.

According to Huppert’s protagonist, “After 40, women are meant for the trash.” Things to Come seemingly builds its entire sense of narrative conflict around that idea. Huppert begins the film as a successful academic with a rich family life and an unhinged, but caring mother. Gradually, time and social convention strips each and every one of her personal connections away from her until she is left entirely alone, with the exception of a cat she never wanted to adopt. Her kids are grown. Her publishers are looking to update or replace her textbooks with something flashier & easier to sell. Her husband’s passion for her has similarly been diverted to new pursuits. She’s essentially left alone with her mountainous stacks of academic books on Philosophy, her life’s calling, convinced that intellectual stimulation alone is all she needs to live a fulfilled life. It’s doubtful that could be possibly be true.

Oddly enough, this is the second film I’ve seen recently that addresses middle age romance complications between somewhat wealthy Philosophy academics. Where Things to Come aims for subtle humor and restrained drama, Rebecca Miller’s film Maggie’s Plan goes loud & broad, echoing the traditionalist comedic beats of Old Hollywood screwball humor. Julianne Moore’s performance in that film is a much more immediately entertaining version of what Huppert pulls off here, although it’s arguably more caricature than Huppert’s character study. Things to Come certainly has its own moments of blatant punchline and situational humor. It’s just a much more subdued, melancholy look at the isolation and abandonment even the most successful, beautiful women to tend to suffer at middle age. As an audience with no particular affinity for subtlety in my pop culture entertainment, I much preferred the simple pleasures of Maggie’s Plan, but I could easily see others feeling differently on that point.

I’m possibly doing a disservice to Things to Come by comparing directly to other works like Elle or Maggie’s Plan, which only bear a passing resemblance to the film, but the truth is that it doesn’t do an especially great job of a distinguishing itself from the indie drama gestalt, leaving little room to discuss it on its own terms. Besides Huppert’s undeniable magnetism, the most distinctive aspects of the film are its broadcasting of philosophical readings and its attention to images of pure Nature: trees, water, mountains, flowers, a dead mouse. If I weren’t eternally bored by Philosophy as a subject or if the Nature photography had taken more of starring role in shaping the film’s narrative & tone, I might have been a lot more willing to allow Things to Come to sweep me off my feet. The film doesn’t seem all that interested in eliciting that reaction, though, and what’s left onscreen is mostly a melancholy character study about a woman whose age had relegated her “meant for the trash.” Huppert finds a worthwhile performance in that exercise, but not a particularly memorable one.

-Brandon Ledet

Elle (2016)

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In all honesty, I’m probably the last person that should be writing this review. Paul Verhoeven’s latest is the exact kind of fearless, subversive button pusher that I typically enjoy from the director’s back catalog of all-time greats. It just happens to be a button pusher that centers its controversial mode of black comedy on rape. Sexual assault is more or less the only taboo in cinema that actually offends me when it’s treated lightly & without proper thematic consequence. It’s likely that I did not “get” Verhoeven’s Elle because of that personal hangup. The film opens with a brutal rape, which is repeated several times in greater detail and subsequently followed by increasingly crueler acts of sexual violence, but asks you to move on and shrug off the trauma as if it were nothing of any significance. Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s “behind you,” having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.

Isabelle Huppert stars as the titular character in this glib rape revenge blood-boiler. Michelle is a video game developer who finds herself at a crossroads in her life with every one of her family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Among these faces is an assailant who repeatedly rapes her in her own home while wearing gloves & a ski mask, a transgression made painfully real to the audience as soon as the credits begin. The movie sets up two mysteries in its early machinations: Who is Michelle’s rapist & what crimes did her father commit in the distant past to make her entire family a dysfunctional band of social pariahs? Only the latter mystery is at all interesting, but the former eats up the majority of the runtime, leaving little room for any other narrative to take hold. It’s difficult to get lost in Elle‘s dark, complexly humorous relationships with her mother, her business partners, her employees, her neighbors, and her son when the film keeps drawing your attention back to the constant threat of sexual assault, which is a much less interesting & more overly familiar dynamic. Worse yet, it asks you to chuckle quietly at the calm, blasé way she processes the trauma, a line of humor that’s never close to being amusing, unlike the character-driven comedy the film sacrifices to pursue it. It’s a credit to the cast, Huppert especially, that Elle is even watchable for the entire length of its bloated, coldly harrowing runtime. Everything from Verhoeven’s detached tone to the screenplay’s core concepts alienate me on such a deeply spiritual level that I’m having a difficult time grasping why people find the film entertaining and how it ended up earning so much critical acclaim, including from mainstream outlets like the Golden Globes.

As I said, I’m the exact wrong audience for this film. If tasked with editing & re-shooting Elle, I’d cut it down to a swift black comedy about a publicly disgraced, wealthy family struggling to put their lives back together; imagine an art film version of Arrested Development and you get the picture. That’s obviously not the film Verhoeven & Huppert set out to make, though, and I have as little interest in engaging with their cruelly detached rape revenge comedy/thriller as the film has engaging with its own themes of sexual assault. It’s not that I think rape is a topic wholly off-limits as a cinematic subject. Two of my favorite films from the last couple years, Felt & The Neon Demon, trafficked heavily in themes of threatened sexual assault. I just think that if you’re going to bring it up (and especially if you’re going to depict it several times in brutal detail with a comedic fallout), you owe it to the audience to make sure the trauma is thematically significant. If Elle fulfilled that requirement in any way, it’s safe to say that I didn’t “get” the film on a fundamental level. I’m totally okay with that being the case.

-Brandon Ledet