Monday, January 23, 2017

High class trash

I should have been a little more circumspect before thinking that the Paul Verhoeven film Elle (at the Main Art) would have not only great artistic merit but great moral or symbolic value as well. But Verhoeven, after all, is the director of films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls and has a strange infatuation with sex, violence and rape. His fantasies are on display again here in this film based on the novel by Philippe Djian. I also was taken in by the fact that one of my favourite actresses, Isabelle Huppert, is the star. And the film also stars that great stalwart of contemporary French cinema, Charles Berling. Huppert, who is almost always great in whatever film she’s in, certainly doesn’t disappoint, though she is getting a bit typecast as the emotionally cold, calculating career-climber with no soul. The fact she’d allow herself to be cast in this film is also unfortunate. For Elle is nothing but an exploitative, sexist, vulgar film dressed up as high art. I’ll admit the film captivates the viewer from beginning to end. And Huppert and the supporting cast are quite good. But it doesn’t make up for the film’s vile and quite improbable themes. Let’s list them. As a little girl Huppert as Michèle Leblanc is manipulated or plays a direct role in the savage serial killings by her father. As an adult she becomes a successful video production studio executive. The central narrative of the film is her initial and continuing rapes by a masked assailant who keeps breaking into her house. From the film's trailer one might think the story line would be about the character exacting revenge. But that’s not really what happens. In fact, Michèle seems to enjoy her rapist, who turns out to be a man she’s otherwise highly attracted to. So, what is the story trying to say – that women, after all, enjoy being raped? You’ve got to be kidding, in the year 2017; how anti-feminist! Second, what is the probability of a child having endured such extreme trauma now as an adult being the victim of such extraordinary violence? Probably nil. Third, the video studio Leblanc runs is obsessed with making vulgar animations of creatures raping women in the most hideous ways. Now, what’s that all about? If the movie tried to link these storylines or interpret them in a way that suggested society’s moral depravity, the denial of feminism, even childhood trauma causing the Leblanc character's sociopathic mindset, at least that would be something. But Verhoeven just leaves the incidents standing on their own, with no connection and no judgement. It’s almost like he’s laughing at it all and perhaps even laughing more at us, the audience. It’s hollow laughter.

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