As recent posts have confirmed, the overlaps and parallels in my TIFF coverage are occasionally surprising. In addition to seeing two back to back Amy Adams films, I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing two very different Isabelle Huppert films.
Let’s bitch it out…
Isabelle is a well known commodity in France; she’s basically a legend. The woman has no less than 100 credits on her CV and she’s been nominated for (and won) multiple Cesars, France’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. She has a history of being unafraid with her film choices and both of the films that I saw at TIFF 2016 made it clear that that reputation is well earned.
Things To Come is the new film by French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve and stars Huppert as a middle age philosophy teacher. The film is a slice of life examination of Nathalie, whose world is effectively thrown into disarray when she discovers that her husband of 20+ years is leaving her for another woman. This is fairly common narrative ground to explore, but thankfully Things To Come isn’t concerned with making sweeping statements about women of a certain age or infidelity. No, the film is primarily interested in a detailed character examination of Nathalie and how she moves on with her life – in ways big and small.
The press notes make it sound as though Nathalie begins an illicit affair with her much younger former student Fabien (Roman Kolinka) who has become something of a radical communist in the years since he graduated. That’s doing the film a disservice; in truth Nathalie and Fabien’s interactions are far more intellectual than sexual. He re-enters her life at a time when everything she thought she knew has come undone and Fabien challenges her to reexamine her beliefs.
As a fairly straightforward story, Things To Come works principally because of Huppert’s performance. This is a film that doesn’t so much introduce conflict as it does capture the ins and outs of a life over several years, and the result is a leisurely paced, comfortable feeling film. At the center is Huppert, who imbues Nathalie with intelligence, determination and grace, even when it’s clear she’s not quite succeeding with her life choices.
Michèle, Huppert’s character in Elle, the latest film from controversial director Paul Verhoeven, could not be more different. The film made waves for both its content and Huppert’s performance before it even premiered and after the screening, it’s easy to see why.
Elle is also a portrait of a middle aged woman who undergoes a process of rediscovery, but the event that instigates the journey is much more visceral. The conflict at the center of Elle is also its opening scene, which finds Michèle being raped by a masked assailant in her apartment. Verhoeven wisely holds off showing us the attack, focusing instead on a black still before transitioning to a shot of Michèle’s cat watching dispassionately as the attack plays out on the soundtrack. Eventually we do see the it – both how it happened, as well as Michèle’s imagined fantasy response – and it is vicious. Credit Verhoeven for refusing to pull punches, as well as Huppert for her willingness to dig into such a challenging role.
What makes Elle so controversial, however, is not so much the rape, as Michèle’s response to it. Rather than report it to the police, Michèle goes about her life: she goes to work as the head of a company making a bloody, misogynist video game; she goes for dinner with her ex-husband, best friend and the best friend’s husband, with whom she is also having an affair. Her refusal to be victimized is abnormal, particularly in North American cinema where rape in films is frequently accompanied by crying, withdrawal and revenge. Michèle does none of this. In fact when she is attacked again by the same masked man later in the film, there’s a disturbing insinuation that she’s beginning to engage with him. While she’s not inviting the attacks, she’s not exactly unwilling, either.
Since we’re talking about Paul Verhoeven, Elle is replete with challenging sexual politics. Michèle is a very sexual woman, unafraid of her sexuality or her desires. She flirts with a significantly younger employee at work and publicly humiliates another who tries to undermine her. She tosses away her lover when it suits her and crashes her car into the bumper of her ex before meeting him for dinner. In many ways Michèle is unlikeable, a complete bitch even, but neither Verhoeven nor Huppert seem to care whether we like or care for her. If anything they seem to be daring us to try and understand her, demanding that we accompany her on this unusual sexual odyssey. Intriguingly Elle doesn’t even particularly care about adhering to the conventions of the sexual thriller genre: the assailant is unmasked by the film’s halfway point…and nothing happens as a result (in fact when Michèle gets into a car accident shortly thereafter, she winds up calling him for help).
If nothing else, TIFF 2016 has proven to me that Isabelle Huppert is an immensely talented, versatile actress who rightfully deserves all of the accolades heaped on her. The dichotomy between the two roles (she’s actually appearing in a third TIFF film which I was unable to screen) is immense, but she’s compelling and believable in both roles. Of the two, Elle is certainly the flashier, more controversial film that I will undoubtedly check out again later, but I know moving forward, I will eagerly seek out more of Huppert’s work. She’s that good.