In the time-honored words of a be-wigged Will Ferrell, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, and not just because ten days of marathon cinephilia has left me a spent, desiccated husk of my former self. Some critics pride themselves on contrarianism, and a select few do it well, mounting convincing arguments for films that they genuinely believe have been unfairly maligned or misunderstood. Up until this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I never counted myself among the ranks of those battling against the tide of critical consensus, but in my two-ish weeks on the Croisette, I’ve been reborn as a stubborn S.O.B. willing to go to bat for films I never thought I’d have to and denigrating the fan-favorites. While colleagues (intelligent, rational-minded writers on whom I mean to cast no shade whatsoever) vaunted the funny-but-plain Toni Erdmann and irredeemable American Honey, I’ve had to assume the mantle of the festival’s resident Xavier Dolan apologist and, most incredibly given the team’s record as critical darlings, mount a defense of a new Dardennes bros. picture.
Paul Verhoeven’s thriller Elle was the last Competition title on the board this morning, another eagerly anticipated entry from a less-than-prolific artist. I knew the Dutch filmmaker primarily as the architect behind Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct some of the most treasured Hollywood successes of the ’80s and ’90s (and also Showgirls), but perhaps if I had cultivated a closer familiarity with his work outside the English language, I would’ve been better prepared for this nasty, blackhearted firestarter.
Maybe I’m part of that humorless generation of younger critics that insist on holding their art to a certain set of moral standards, but I found no charm, comedy, or titillation in Verhoeven’s playful treatment of rape. (Furthermore, a demand for basic decency ought not to be a distinctly #millennial thing.) As the film opens on a cute kitty-cat watching with chilly dispassion as its owner endures a brutal sexual assault on her living room floor, Verhoeven dares to ask the hot-button question of “What if getting violently violated in your own home was actually… kind of sexy?”
Video game designer Michèle (Isabelle Huppert in a delectably prickly performance, no getting around that) doesn’t seem especially rattled by the vicious attack levied on her, promptly cleaning herself up, getting an STD screen, and calling it a day. An armchair psychoanalyst could peg this as repression for post-traumatic stress from several kilometers away, but outside of a brief fantasy in which she beats her rapist to death, she moves right along with her busy life.
She’s got plenty on her plate to distract her from the threatening text messages an unknown number keeps sending her: an affair she’s getting bored with, a dimwitted son balancing a shrewish baby mama and dead-end job at a McDonald’s knockoff, an insubordinate employee undermining her authority over their World Of Warcraft-looking new release, an ex-husband who’s shacked up with a yoga instructor half his age, a mother proud to announce her engagement to a shredded gigolo clearly out for her money, a pair of weirdly devout Christian neighbors, and the lingering public contempt left over from a string of murders her father committed decades ago.
On top of all of this, Verhoeven still holds fast to Michèle’s trenchant investigation of her own rape, motivated less by a pursuit of retribution than a kinky curiosity. These discrete pieces clash harshly, and even more frustratingly, provide a crystal-clear impression of the film that Elle could be. There’s an agreeably salty dysfunctional-family film buried under the misogynistic sadism masquerading as lusty game-playing, and the latter can’t help but sour the former.
Verhoeven outs the rapist’s identity about halfway through, pivoting from a lascivious mystery into an even more distasteful sort of film, where the worst thing one human can do to another is play-acted like a fetishistic game. There’s so much worth celebrating ensconced within the blindingly repulsive A-plot — Huppert is a phenom, the jokes that don’t revolve around poking fun at rape all connect, and Verhoeven builds tension with a seasoned hand even when that tension leads to an objectionable end — that the film’s repeated soiling of its own excellence proves doubly disappointing.
And with Elle, that’s it. I managed to catch all but one of the official Competition selections, missing out on the three-hour Romanian talkathon Sieranevada from Cristi Puiu. It’s been an edifying experience, but before I return to America and remember that not all films are required to contain a scene of bitter family members bellowing at one another or innocent women getting attacked, there are quasi-harebrained predictions to be made.
Prognosticating the Oscars is tricky enough, but gauging the Cannes awards recipients is an entirely different and far murkier kettle of fish. Because the results come from a small panel of jurors (staffed up this year by President George Miller, Kirsten Dunst, Mads Mikkelsen, Donald Sutherland, French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, Son Of Saul director László Nemes, French actress Vanessa Paradis, Italian cineaste Valeria Golino, and Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi) instead of a thousands-strong body of voters, the awards reflect a collection of disparate opinions resolved into agreement instead of an industry’s status quo. As such, guessing the awards boils down to taking potshots in the dark, with only critical buzz to inform the picks below. Accept them all with a healthy skepticism, and the understanding that I only kind-of-know what I’m doing.