Elle (2016)

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onehalfstar

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

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

fourstar

After watching Trauma and seeing the premonitions of failure in Dario Argento’s later works that the film possessed, La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome) was surprisingly refreshing in its successes. That’s not to say that Syndrome is perfect; there’s a lot wrong with this movie, including multiple sexual assaults, a killer with impenetrable motivations, some really bad effects, and disturbingly dark sexual politics. If you can overlook those problems, there’s a decent mystery here and a fresh twist, even if it is predicated on a skewed sense of gender dynamics and a warped understanding of trauma. This review, like this movie, is quite triggering with regards to sexual assault, so be warned. Also, spoilers.

Anna Manni (Asia Argento, appearing in one of her father’s films for the second time) fled her small home city at an early age to escape her unhappy family life; now, she’s a police inspector in Rome. She is involved in an unfulfilling romantic relationship with her partner Marco (Marco Leonardi, of Cinema Paradiso and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), which has become increasingly strained as the two investigate a serial rapist who has recently begun to murder his victims as well. Anna’s detective work leads her to Florence, where she receives an anonymous tip that leads her to the world-famous Uffizi Gallery. She is overcome by the titular syndrome, a psychosomatic reaction to an intensely profound experience (usually exposure to art) with physiological effects, and faints, splitting her lip and experiencing a bout of amnesia.

Of course, this is not made evident at the outset. The film opens with the unidentified Anna at the Uffizi Gallery, where she is “transported” into Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, as the waves in the painting suddenly move and she finds herself flying over the CGI water before falling in and kissing a fish with a human-ish face (which is never explained). While I don’t think it was a bad idea to obfuscate the narrative from the outset, necessarily, this is a strange scene that doesn’t set the mood for the rest of the film, and I would argue that failing to express a thesis for such a prolonged time before the plot appears is one of the film’s failings.

Anna faints after the Icarus weirdness and is helped to her feet by a handsome man, whom she will later learn is named Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann). Having lost her memory, Anna finds her hotel using the room key in her pocket. That evening, she enters another fugue state during which a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch dissolves and she passes through it into a memory of one of the serial rapist/killer’s crime scenes, where we learn why she was in Florence. Then, suddenly, she’s back in her hotel room where the rapist is revealed to be Alfredo, who assaults Anna.

Let’s not mince words here: this is a deeply, deeply fucked up scene. This is by far Argento’s darkest movie, and I don’t say that lightly. Criticism of Argento’s early work often referenced a perception of his work as being misogynistic and glorifying both sexual objectification and sexual violence. In those works, however, any sexual assault was only referenced or alluded to, while here the rape is shown, in detail, with physical violence including punches and slashing. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the rape that is later revealed to be a motivating factor for the killer is referred to as a crime that occurred ten years prior and depicted only in the artwork of a demented hermit painter. The closest that his earlier work has come to this was in the flashbacks that motivated the killer in Tenebrae, in which he was physically assaulted on the beach and a beautiful woman molested him with the red heels that would become his obsession. There was a quiet understatement in those earlier works that is not present here, with its horrifying first person points of view of both victim and assailant, and the scene feels like it goes on forever. It’s exploitative, frankly, even before you take into account that this character was portrayed by Argento’s daughter. or the fact that it will happen again.

Afterwards, the drugged Anna awakes during Alfredo’s next crime and watches as he murders his next victim, which he seems to do solely for Anna’s viewing. She flees and returns to Rome, where her boss, Inspector Manetti (Luigi Diberti), places her under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Cavanna (Paolo Bonacelli) and recommends she spend some time with her family. Anna visits her father (John Quentin), and reminisces with her brothers about how her mother used to take her to the nearby museum to look at the art, where she experienced Stendhal Syndrome for the first time. She also cuts her hair and begins dressing in men’s traditional clothing, affecting a more masculine look as she trains as a boxer and begins creating paintings of her own, all of them of a screaming face. Alfredo tracks her down, and after assaulting her again and leaving her handcuffed and tied down to a mattress for several hours, he returns, but she is able to overtake him and exact some Rasputinian revenge: first she shoots him, then beats him, and breaks his neck, before throwing him into a river.

Anna returns to Rome, her personality further affected as she now wears a long blonde wig to cover scars from her assault and dresses only in white dresses. It is at this point that the police learn Alfredo’s identity, but Anna remains unconvinced that he has been vanquished. She strikes up a relationship with a Frenchman named Marie, an art student. When he, too, is murdered, the police search for Alfredo begins again.

There are a lot of problems here, foremost among them the representation of rape and sexual assault mentioned above. The revelation that Alfredo truly is dead and has been dead for weeks while the murders continue reveals that Anna’s repeated traumas have caused her to become a killer as well, and she ultimately reveals that Alfredo’s body is dead but he remains inside her. One way to read the implication of this is that the fractured psyches of victims of assault eventually lead them to become violent and psychopathic as well, which is just awful. It’s almost impossible to defend this choice either, especially when combined with other problematic elements here; for instance, one of the earlier rape victims that Alfredo left alive is interviewed by Anna, and she compares her assault, favorably, to sex with her boorish husband. There are huge sections of this narrative that are reprehensible at best, and that’s undeniable.

There are visual problems here as well. I’m not sure if the problem was a result of a bad transfer in the edition that I watched (it was a Troma DVD, after all), but the whole film looks like it was shot on video, which has the overall effect of causing it to feel both dated and cheap. It also reduces the impact of the artwork that’s shown throughout the movie, as it’s hard to imagine anyone being affected by the artwork when everything looks like a flat, bargain brand imitation rather than the real thing. Syndrome also has the distinction of being the first Italian film to use CGI, and Argento’s reasoning behind which images he chose to utilize this new technology to create are baffling. The CGI waves that emerge from Icarus actually look quite good, especially for a movie from 1996, but CGI is also used to follow a couple of pills that Anna swallows down her throat, for no apparent thematic reason. There are a few such scenes, where the images are unnecessary and silly looking, and as such are terribly distracting.

There’s also the fact that Anna, at such a young age (Asia was 20), seems far too young to be as professionally accomplished as she supposedly is. Further, there’s a general problem regarding whether or not Stendhal Syndrome is anything more that pseudopsychology. Still, this is a movie that’s quite good, in spite of all of its ethical and mechanical issues. The nonlinear narrative is at first confusing, but works better on reflection, as Syndrome acts as a kind of film version of a painting. What separates art and sculpture from prose, film, drama, and music is that those media incorporate time as an element of the story, progressing in a more or less linear fashion from beginning to end. Paintings and sculptures do not have this luxury, and thus must evoke an emotional rapport and create a rhetorical space through a still image, implying motion with static visuals. Syndrome, in many ways, acts as a series of set pieces that are presented out of order, and must be ordered after viewing. You cannot read The Night Watch from left to right like a sentence; you first see the figures highlighted by chiaroscuro, and then focus on other faces, or the figures’ clothing. Syndrome is much the same, and the attempt to recreate this kind of experience on film is laudable in its audacity and its success. I simply wish that they appeared in a movie that was praiseworthy for the content of its story as well, and that didn’t work so hard to make the audience feel Anna’s violation so viscerally and exploitatively.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (aka Big Bad Wolves, 2014)

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threehalfstar

(Trigger Warning: Child Abuse and Sexual Assault)

What is a monster? We live in a world where we know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that there are no vampires, no werewolves, no scarred demons with razor gloves stalking our dreamscapes with the power to make our nightmare deaths carry over into the waking world. Films featuring antagonists that no rational person could legitimately fear, like a children’s doll haunted by the soul of a serial killer or an evil leprechaun covered in carcinomas, belong to the realm of fantasy. Thus, contemporary horror often confines itself to the plausible, in many ways becoming more like thrillers than the traditional horror films of yore. Our modern monster has to be a person, someone who could be your neighbor or simply a fellow citizen who happens to be a stranger, capable of doing something monstrous. For the past couple of decades, this phantom has to be someone capable of committing that most heinous of crimes–child molestation and murder.

The problem with this, of course, is that those of us in the West have become horribly desensitized to it. For seventeen seasons (and counting), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has shown episode after episode dealing with the neat, patly handled aftermath of sexual assault, especially of children. Every other crime or investigative drama of the new millennium has also featured rape of children as a plot point multiple times. Chris Hanson turned pedophile hunting into a frenzied spectator sport with To Catch a Predator–not that this isn’t something that law enforcement should be doing, but turning the deception and capture of child molesters into entertainment? What the actual fuck? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the commodification and de facto pursuant trivialization of sexual assault and abuse, virtually always of women and often of children, has led to the horrifying explosion of misogynists, rape culture opportunists and deniers, and people who are generally unmoved by the suffering of others. Cultural sensitivities have been numbed by decades of exploitation of those most in need of understanding and protection.

As a result, a thriller that creates great tension and remains (mostly) non-exploitative while dealing with a child murderer in an appropriate way is a rarity, and 2013 Israeli film Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara (literally “Who fears the bad wolf,” released in English-speaking markets as Big Bad Wolves in 2014) is a surprisingly good watch, barring two major problems. It’s a thematically sound, lean and taut ride from start to finish.

The plot follows three men. The first two we meet at Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dror (Rotem Keinan); Dror is a Tanakh teacher who has been apprehended by a quartet of punch-happy police, led by Micki, in connection with the abduction of a girl who went missing during a game of hide-and-seek. They take him to a seemingly empty warehouse and rough him up before taking him in for processing; unbeknownst to them, they are filmed by a teenager who happens to have been hanging out in the abandoned building. Commissioner Tsvika (Dvir Benedek) pulls Micki from the case, initially demoting him for his actions before firing him once the video goes viral. Meanwhile, Dror finds himself already having been judged guilty in the court of public opinion after he is released and is ostracized. An anonymous tip leads the police to the missing girl’s corpse, which is missing its head (meaning she cannot be truly put to rest under traditional Judaic law, although this is not explicitly mentioned in the film) and bears signs of sexual assault; she is not the first. The girl’s father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), concocts a plan to torture Dror in order to find out where his daughter’s head is.

At the film’s core, the thematic intention is to call into question our convictions about good and evil. Is Dror guilty? What if he’s innocent? And, if he is guilty, does that justify that’s done to him, so graphically and brutally? Even if all that happens is a revisitation of the murderer’s crimes, will recreating those horrors really bring Gidi or Micki closure? Is everyone really a monster? This is beautifully delineated in the way that Dror and Micki act as reflections of each other. Once the video is released showing Micki and his fellow officers beating Dror, both lose their jobs; Dror is fired from the school due to parental complaints, and Micki is let go from the force for participating in the assault (with the unstated, implicit reason being that his firing is less for the event itself than for the fact that he was stupid enough to get caught doing it). Both the head of the school and the chief of police say that the dismissal is temporary, and that each man will come back to his respective position once everything blows over. Both men are estranged from their wives, causing them to feel distant from their daughters (Gidi is also estranged from his wife, and, of course, his daughter is dead).

Despite being an engrossing and cinematically pristine film, there are several factors that simply cannot be ignored with regards to the film. First and foremost, it’s reprehensibly irresponsible to portray the documenting of police brutality as being a greater social ill than the brutality itself. Many of the events of the narrative could have been prevented had the video not come to light, but the film doesn’t lay the blame at the feet of the policemen who are beating a suspect, instead having the characters lament that they were caught. No spoilers–I’ll simply say that this movie would have had an unambiguously happy ending had Micki and crew followed procedure in the first place.

But there’s an even greater problem here. There’s only one woman in this movie: the realtor (Nati Kluger). There are also a few young girls, obviously, but none of them ever speak or have any autonomy at all. Arguably, there’s a certain unavoidable lack of complete agency for all children, given that they require caretaking, but contrast this to the way we are presented with the chief’s son, who is actualizing his hero worship of his father and being empowered by his father’s knowledge and guidance. He’s treated like a person, which is more than can be said for any of the adult women who are heard (and never seen) in this movie. Every single man who makes up the core of this ensemble has a wife, a woman who exists entirely offscreen, appearing only as a disembodied voice on the phone. This is a fantastic movie, taught and evocative and timely, but there’s just something about the fact that this is a revenge movie in which three men exact harsh torture upon a fourth, with all of them being motivated by the rape and murder of a voiceless girl with a formless mother.

The last time I saw a plot that handled all the elements on display here with the same kind of tension, ambiguity, and deftness was 2005’s Hard Candy, starring Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Page’s character is an underage girl who is lured in by Wilson’s alleged pedophile, only to reveal herself as a possibly unhinged self-made vigilante; the rest of the film plays out as a series of power games that calls into question audience assumptions about who is the predator and who is the prey. Both movies have a cast in the single digits (not counting phone voices) and exist solely to play with expectations, but Hard Candy had something that Wolves does not: female characters.

Wolves may be a five star viewing experience, but its subtextual erasure of the horrifying implications and realities of its own premise severely detracts from the film’s recommendability as well as its relevance and canonization as a work of art. “If you want to see this premise done right, watch Hard Candy” is the wrong lesson to take from this review, although that statement is mostly accurate. Wolves is a legitimately good movie, it’s simply that its lack of self-awareness of the way in which it articulates its thesis weakens the movie’s overall statements and concepts.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond