Elle


Michelle takes her solace where she can find it.

Michelle takes her solace where she can find it.

(2016) Thriller (Sony Classics) Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaél Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor, Hugo Ponzelmann, Stéphane Bak, Hugues Martel, Anne Loiret, Nicolas Beaucaire, David Colombo-Léotard, Loic Legendre, Eric Savin, Olivia Gotanégre. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

There are traumatic events in our life that shape us as people – sometimes making us stronger, sometimes making us more vulnerable. If there is something that truly defines us, it is how we react to those kinds of traumas.

As the movie begins, we witness the brutal and savage rape of Michelle (Huppert), the often prickly co-owner of a videogame company in France. When the masked assailant is done, he leaves her to literally pick up the pieces (of broken glass) and wash away (literally) the stains of her ordeal. She seems numb to it all, then goes about life as if nothing had happened – indeed until she mentions that she was raped almost casually at a dinner party, she tells nobody about the event, not even her son (Bloquet) who has a pregnant girlfriend (Isaaz) who is shrewish and almost psychotic.

Michelle begins to suspect that the person who raped her is someone employed by her, so she has one of the few people she trusts quietly hack into her male employees’ home computers to see what they’re up to. In the meantime we discover that Michelle has let her ex-husband Richard (Berling) know that she disapproves of his new choice of wives and her mother (Magre) her choice of boyfriends. As she is being judgmental she is carrying on an extramarital affair with Robert (Berkel), husband of her best friend (Consigny) and the company’s co-owner. She is also attracted to Patrick (Lafitte), the very married new neighbor across the street.

But she is receiving menacing texts apparently from the man who raped her and when he returns for a follow-up visit, she is strangely aroused. Now it has become a full-blown obsession – but who is the man responsible? And as Michelle begins to grow colder to those who work with her and who are her friends and family, inevitably something is going to have to give.

Huppert’s performance has already netted her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and let me tell you right off the bat that she has earned all of that. This is a searing performance that can be hard to watch – Michelle has all sorts of issues and not all of them are pretty – but at the same time one you can’t look away from. Huppert, a French sex symbol for decades has in her 60s become one of the Grand Dames of French cinema and this is perhaps her best performance ever. It is layered almost in ways that make her seem like she has multiple personalities; sometimes vulnerable, sometimes cold as ice, sometimes hot as lava, sometimes aggressive, sometimes bitchy and sometimes tender but always fascinating.

The veteran cast behind her excels particular Consigny (who I think is one of the most underrated actresses in France) and Lafitte whose character is not all he appears to be. Most of the characters here share that quality.

As thrillers go, there are moments here that are absolutely wrenching but this is by no means an “edge of the seat” affair and in many ways this is more of a slow burn than an intense flame. There are some twists as you might expect and as you also might expect they are not what you’d get from a Hollywood thriller which is quite pleasant particularly for veteran cinemaphiles who rarely get surprised with the genre anymore.

The rape sequences spare nothing as those who have followed Verhoeven’s career might expect. Verhoeven has a history of sexual explicitness in his films and the rape scenes here are no different. They are graphic and brutal and those who have survived sexual assaults or are sensitive to them in any other way should think really hard before seeing this as it might prove to be a trigger. Seriously, it is not for the faint of heart and not for those who are thin of skin. Take that warning seriously.

This is definitely Huppert’s show however and the big reason to see it is her. It is a triumphant performance for a woman who has had a distinguished career although here in the States she has not received the recognition she is due. Although she is up against some strong competition, she does have a strong chance at winning the statuette and that can only be justice for a career that deserves more attention that has been received from American audiences.

REASONS TO GO: An intense and riveting performance by Huppert. Several twists and turns that are unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexual assault scenes may be too disturbing, particular for survivors of sexual assault.
FAMILY VALUES: There are several graphic sexual assaults, some disturbing sexual scenes, gruesome images, nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be an American production, but Verhoeven was unable to find a lead actress willing to do the role. Huppert got a hold of the script and contacted the producers expressing her interest and even suggested that Verhoeven direct the film, unaware that he was already attached to it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Black Book


Carice van Houten and Michel Huisman get bombed.

Carice van Houten and Michel Huisman get bombed.

(Sony Classics) Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus, Derek de Lint, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries. Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

While war itself is an absolute evil, often life in wartime is characterized by varying shades of grey. Those caught up in it must often differentiate between these shades, trying to find the one that is least black. In the process, they often have to become something terrible in order to avoid becoming a corpse.

Rachel Stein (van Houten) is a Dutch Jew hiding in the countryside during the waning days of World War II, hoping to survive until the Germans are defeated. When her hiding place is obliterated, she is taken to see a sympathetic notary (de Vries) who helps reunite her with her family with the purpose of getting them across the border to Allied territory. During the river crossing, the boat full of Jewish refugees is ambushed by the Nazis and gunned down. Rachel is the only survivor.

She is rescued by Gerben Kuipers (de Lint), a Dutch resistance leader who offers her shelter. Instead, the vengeful Rachel joins the resistance as a spy and changes her name to the less ethnic Ellis de Vries. During a mission with Hans Akkerman (Hoffman), she meets Ludwig Muntze (Koch), the head of the Dutch SD. She makes an impression on him, but thinks nothing further of it.

After Kuipers’ son is captured she is enlisted to seduce Muntze and obtain the release of the captives. She is hired as his assistant and soon befriends Ronnie (Reijn), a Dutch woman who is using whatever means necessary to survive, including sleeping with Frankel (Kobus), a ruthless sub commander who was responsible for the death of her parents. Ellis/Rachel manages to bug Frankel’s office, giving the resistance much useful information. She also finds that Muntze’s duties are being suborned by his conscience, and that he is an incredibly decent man. She begins to fall in love with him.

After several missions go horribly wrong it soon becomes clear that the resistance has an informant in its midst. Suspicion falls on Ellis/Rachel after Frankel frames her. Now, she finds that post-war Holland is in many respects more dangerous for her than the Nazi occupation was as she tries to discover who the true traitor is before she is captured by those she worked so hard to assist.

Verhoeven, whose career was established based on his Dutch war masterpiece Soldier of Orange has been making Hollywood blockbusters such as Total Recall, RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct. This is his first Dutch film since 1983’s The 4th Man. Black Book holds the distinction of being the most expensive film ever made in Holland at the time it was released, and also the most commercially successful film to come from the Netherlands ever.

The movie has a very slick look to it, and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub does a fine job of making it look good. Verhoeven has done an excellent job of bringing wartime Holland to life. He has also co-written a script that has ample twists and turns as Ellis/Rachel navigates – often painfully – through the politics not only of the Nazi occupation but of the Dutch resistance as well. It works pretty nicely as a thriller.

The big problem with the writing, if it has any, is that there are too many twists and turns. As Ellis/Rachel wails near the end of the film, “When will it all stop!” and we, the audience agree – the movie is about 20 minutes too long. However, that really is where the bellyaching from this critic begins and ends.

Van Houten is a spectacular-looking woman, and not a bad actress to boot. She has to carry the movie nearly entirely on her shoulders and she does a good job of it. She gets support from Koch, who reminds me of the Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, and from Hoffman, who reminds me a bit of Andrew McCarthy.

Overall, this is very well-made and does keep you on the edge of your seat. Although this is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted here actually happened. Verhoeven, when at the top of his game, is a world class director, and he’s at the top of his game here. With just a bit of tweaking, this might have been his best work ever. Instead, it’s a very enjoyable, entertaining two hours well worth spending.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is as well-made as any coming out of Hollywood. Van Houten is an absolutely spectacular looking woman. World War II-set movies are big these days.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Movie goes on a bit too long with one two many twists. Dialogue is mostly in Dutch and German, so those who abhor subtitles will be annoyed.

FAMILY VALUES: Many Nazi atrocities are depicted in unflinching detail. There is also a fair amount of female nudity, as well as extremely sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The genesis of the film came when director Verhoeven was researching true stories from the Second World War in the Netherlands back in 1977 when he was making Soldier of Orange.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Capitalism: A Love Story