Perhaps only Paul Verhoeven would open a film mid-rape — the violent attack observed by an unimpressed green-eyed cat — and then follow up with a scene where Michèle, the rape victim, face puffy from the beating, picks up a phone and orders takeout, asking questions about the "holiday roll." She's not blasé about what happened. She's freaked out. She stuffs the dress she was wearing in the trash. She takes a bath, blood from her genital area staining the bubbles above. She does not call the police. Instead, she orders food. It's hard to picture this woman shedding a tear. Ever. The opening sequence of Elle is just the start of the demented and exhilarating experience that is this movie. Elle is a high-wire act without a net.
Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, adapted for the screen by David Birke (and then translated into French by Harold Manning),Elle is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres. It's a rape-revenge-ensemble-comedy-thriller-stalker mashup, if you can even picture that. But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and 40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room. You can't imagine any of those women, or Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, going to a support group or therapy. They'll gut it out on their own.
The film is crowded with characters. Michèle has a lot going on: a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) who has an abusive pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) now dating a young yoga teacher, a bored sex fling with a married man, an elderly Botox-ed mother (Judith Magre) carrying on an affair with a gigolo, a pressing project at work (she co-owns a video game company), a handsome married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she stares at longingly from across the street, and a complex backstory not revealed until far into the film. This woman has too much to DO to fall apart after the rape. But then she starts getting creepy texts from the unknown rapist: he knows where she is, what she's wearing. It could be anyone. Every man she knows is a suspect. She buys pepper spray (and, on impulse, a small axe) to protect herself. She says at one point, "Nut jobs I can handle. My specialty." You believe her. Maybe somewhere she always expected something like this, that horror would reach out its tentacles to find her again.
Verhoeven unbalances the existing tension of the "whodunit" aspect of Elle by giving us some pretty obvious clues early on who probably did it. Verhoeven does not "bury the lede" because he's interested in things other than the plot cranking itself out to a "satisfying" conclusion. He’s interested in the psychology and behavior of this particular woman. His camera follows her everywhere, like a stalker, like a lover. As in life, whether we want to admit it or not, those lines are often blurred. Every interaction, not just sexual and political, contains small jostles for power, position, dominance. Who's the "top"? Who's the "bottom" in any given moment? There are competing objectives in every conversation, each side maneuvering to get what they want. Jostling for power comes in many different forms, playing out in romantic relationship, office dynamics, even in a conversation with a group of friends where you have something to say and everyone is too busy talking to give you "the floor." Elle is a dissertation on power dynamics.
Verhoeven's approach is, unsurprisingly, extremely provocative. Michèle is a woman in her early 50s, and her sexuality surges around inside her, seeking expression. It leads her into some pretty dark stuff. In real life, sex doesn't progress in a checklist of approved behaviors happening in the proper order. Sometimes people are drawn to danger, to risk. Rape fantasies are so common as to be mundane. The current view is that consent in sex is a cut-and-dry thing. Either you consent, or you don't. There is no doubt that the rape in Elle is horrifying. Verhoeven does not eroticize it. The rapist wipes the blood from Michele's vagina off of his hip bone as he gets up off of her. But later in the film, when Michèle does consent to sex, enthusiastically, watch how her lover is unnerved by a woman who wants it, who doesn't have to be talked into it. He's almost turned off by her sexual urgency. And that, ultimately, is the most cutting observation in Elle, and Verhoeven's aim is accurate and deadly. Men not knowing what to do with a woman who wants sex and knows how she wants it, men needing to be the "top," always, threatened by a woman taking the "top" role (not in sexual positions, but in attitude) … well. These issues have been with us from the beginning of time, and won't be solved overnight. But Elle is one of the smartest films about consent I've ever seen.
Huppert does not make even an unconscious bid for our sympathy. She never has, throughout her lengthy career and it is one of the things that distinguishes her from other actresses. Even very talented actresses want to make sure that we "understand" why the character does what she does. Huppert doesn't care. She's completely beyond those concerns. It's why she's so thrilling to watch and why she is in such rare company (Anna Magnani, Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford — it's a short list). There's always some element of mystery left intact in Huppert's work. Huppert can be frighteningly blank (The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie), she can be human and flawed (Amour, and the upcoming Things to Come). In Elle she gets to be funny, and it's such a joy to watch! It's effortless for her. She's funny in her line-readings ("Bimbos with big tits never worried me, but the girl who's read The Second Sex will chew you up …"), in her gestures and expressions. You cannot take your eyes off of her. Neither can Verhoeven. In a Q&A following the public screening at the New York Film Festival, Verhoeven reportedly described Huppert (also in attendance) as "unique in the world." She is.
Watching Elle feels like climbing Everest without an oxygen tank. The air is dizzyingly clear up there. And dangerous, too.
Queen of Katwe ***
The nuanced, subtle newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, a young lady who lives in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She has almost no possessions, can’t read and sells maize in the street to try to scrape together change for her family, which includes two brothers, a sister, and her headstrong mother Harriet (Nyong’o). Phiona and her oldest brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) cross paths with a local sports ministry head named Robert Katende (Oyelowo). Recognizing that the slum kids he’s working with aren’t going to compete at football, he decides to teach them something he mastered at a young age, the art of chess. It’s a game that equalizes issues of class, education and income. It can be played by anyone in the world, and Katende soon realizes that this young girl from Katwe has a special gift, especially when she starts beating him.
It’s to be expected that the education segments of Queen of Katwe include a number of nods to how the game reflects Phiona’s life, but the execution doesn't feel heavy-handed. Nair is confident enough in her characters and the story she’s telling to avoid the pitfalls of repetitive lessons. So we get the idea that Phiona likes the act of "Queening" because a pawn makes it all the way across the board, against all odds, and becomes a Queen. We don’t hear it 15 times like we would in a lesser film. When Katende explains the idea of finding a "safe space" whenever your opponent is on the offensive, it’s easy to translate that to Phiona’s real life but the movie doesn’t hammer it in. This subtle touch is undermined a bit in the final act as issues of Phiona’s success and class conflicts start to tear the family apart in a way that feels manipulative and melodramatic, but Nair recovers by the end.
Two of the reasons she manages to get the film back from the edge of treacle are right there in Oyelowo and Nyong’o. The Selma star is as charismatic as ever, capturing the kindness of a man who saw a potential escape for a young lady and did whatever he could to make it happen. Oyelowo’s work here is subtle but so consistent. He never looks like he’s working the message of the film more than the character he’s playing. Opposite him, Nyong’o is phenomenal. She has an incredible ability to convey backstory. We believe Harriet isn’t merely a sounding board for our heroine or an emotional plot device. She feels real because of the intense passion that Nyong’o brings to her. And it’s in the subtle things, like a glance that conveys fear about her family’s future or the different tone she takes with each of her children. One also shouldn’t miss how good Nalwanga is here, giving a fluid and physical performance.
Of course, much of the credit should go back to Nair and her technical team, who capture the streets of Uganda in a way we haven’t really seen before, certainly not in a Disney film (Nair has joked that it was the first Disney film set in Africa that doesn’t have a single animal in it). From the way Nair and her designer use costumes to convey economic status to how the great cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) fluidly captures a corner of the world that makes it feel specific, Queen of Katwe is a team effort. With the combined efforts of Nalwanga, Nair, Nyong’o, Oyelowo, Bobbitt and many more, Queen of Katwe makes it clear that we can’t successfully tell "our stories" alone. To make them resonate, we need people this talented working together for a common goal. It seems unlikely that Phiona Mutesi ever imagined her life would one day be the subject of a Disney film. But she certainly learned that life is full of surprises. When it comes to movie surprises, Queen of Katwe is a truly pleasant one.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back *½
By-the-numbers plotting, seen-it-all-before action moves, banal locations and a largely anonymous cast alongside the star give this a low-rent feel.
Based on the 18th of Child's 20 Reacher best-sellers, the film serves up nothing that hasn't been seen in countless action films before, and it's striking how little effort appears to have been made to give it any distinction: The villains are military guys gone rogue, the female lead is basically fighting the same fight Rosalind Russell did to be recognized for her equal worth among men in His Girl Friday more than 75 years ago, the hand-to-hand combat won't make anyone's highlight reel and even the star looks a bit pale and out of training compared with the shape he invariably gets himself into for the far more elaborate and fun Mission outings.
The film also marks quite a step down, in both ambition and accomplishment, from Cruise and director Edward Zwick's previous collaboration on The Last Samurai 16 years ago. It's even a notable drop-off from the first Reacher feature, which brandished some decent mystery-thriller elements, a very good and realistic car chase, Rosamund Pike in the female lead, juicy supporting turns by Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog and fine Caleb Deschanel cinematography.
This one, by contrast, has little to write home about. For a guy who's been out of the military for a while, Reacher (no one calls him Jack) still can't manage to stay away from soldiers and their institutions. Unfortunately, most of them are up to no good, as he finds out when he pops into Washington to check out the woman who now has his old job, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Unfortunately, their potential date will have to wait, as she's just been arrested for espionage, although this gives him an excuse to prove how slick he is by rescuing her from the high-tech prison where she's held.
This puts him at odds with a Blackwater-like security firm that seems to be running the show and is both willing and anxious to rub out anyone who's on to its big-time weapons and drug dealing. Narratively, the film is almost entirely nuts and bolts, with Reacher and Susan literally on the run most of the time from a coolly efficient assassin (Patrick Heusinger) simply called The Hunter who, in one-on-one combat, can give Reacher a pretty hard time.
The one real twist in the strictly mechanical script by Richard Wenk (the very recent The Magnificent Seven), Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (the latter two now a very long way from Thirtysomething days) is the presence of a teenager, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who may or may not be Reacher's daughter from a relationship 16 years earlier. Left largely to her own devices by her mother, Samantha (unlike the novel) ends up accompanying the pair to New Orleans, where the trio scenically arrive just as the Halloween parade is about to swing into action.
We just see snippets of the locals celebrating as only these locals can, however, as Reacher and The Hunter have it out on the rooftops of the French Quarter while the revelers party on obliviously below. As ever, Reacher is most into hand-to-hand combat, as is The Hunter, resulting in some pretty intense bone-crushing snaps, jabs and well-placed slugs. But there's nothing that hasn't been seen innumerable times before, and in neither style nor substance do Zwick and his writers bring anything new to the genre table here.
The one element that puts a smidgen of snap in the proceedings is something resembling a rivalry between Reacher and Susan in which the latter introduces the gender issue. Unfortunately, neither the screenwriters nor the actors know quite where they want to take this little skirmish of the sexes (not very far, obviously), nor do they have the flair to handle it in a witty fashion, which leaves the matter just sitting out there on a limb.
For an actor who usually seems all-in no matter what he's doing, Cruise comes off as somewhat less engaged than usual here, just going through the motions compared to, certainly, his last Mission: Impossible outing. Committed most noticeably to the physical side of her performance, Smulders can't or won't offer up the humor that might have struck some sparks with her co-star, while Yarosh, sidelined through much of the New Orleans interlude, doesn't have much real to work with as the fraught would-be daughter.
Undistinguished visually, this marks a return to the old days, when sequels were almost always markedly inferior to originals that spawned them.
This week’s other new releases:
Masterminds *½ Sometime it’s an absurdist comedy. Sometimes it’s a dark comedy. Sometimes it’s out-and-out killing-people drama (almost, but not quite). It’s often funny, but it never quite hangs together as a coherent movie.
Boo! A Madea Halloween * At 103 minutes, this film has way too much dead weight. Scenes are repeated over and over, and some of the acting would not cut it in a school play. But in the rare moments when Tyler Perry’s movie is firing on all cylinders, it displays a cleverness that hints at, with more time and a few more iterations of the script, this might have been a good movie.
No stars Abysmal