Isabelle Huppert

Things to Come

Our trip to the cinema to see this French film with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert started off with a bit of drama: as the room went dark and the opening credits rolled in, Mum and I realised we were in a wrong cinema and instead were watching a British war film, which explained the trailer for Dunkirk. Oops. We hurried across into the right theatre and luckily our session hasn’t started yet.

The film itself was in a way an anti-drama; we are so conditioned to constant dramatic developments and turns in the movies that it’s almost disorienting to watch something that’s actually much closer to real life. In a different film, a character suddenly bursting into tears would generally be followed by some shocking confession or revelation, but here it’s just a random burst from a new mother whose emotions run high after the birth and which doesn’t necessarily suggest a shift in the narrative.

Not to say that there wasn’t any drama period – Huppert plays Nathalie, a Parisian philosophy professor, who in the course of the film loses things and people most important in her life. The most devastating loss comes when her husband of 25 years, another philosophy teacher and fellow lover of books, leaves her for another woman. Not that Nathalie lets any of these losses unravel her – even though she doesn’t go through anywhere as much trauma as Huppert’s memorable character in Elle from last year, the two women respond to their misfortunes with a similar lack of self-pity. In the case of fiercely intellectual Nathalie, she leans on the tenets of philosophy to get her through hard times.

Huppert is brilliant and luminous, the gorgeous and serene shots of Paris and French countryside are francophile’s manna, and the movie is best seen as a collection of slice-of-life observations, rather than something that builds up to anything major. This is not How A Mature Philosophy Professor Got Her Groove Back, despite the presence of a younger man, Nathalie’s former student and now a fellow philosopher, who invites her to spend time at the commune-like rural house he shares with his anti-establishment friends. The film tantalises you with possibilities that their relationship might take a sexual turn, but like everything else this doesn’t play like your regular movie drama. In fact the most dramatic thing in the film might be Nathalie’s mother’s fickle black cat.

Elle

elleI caught what was probably one of the last screenings of this film in Melbourne, from the far left seat in the first row of a tiny movie theatre. Which usually would have been a major source of irritation – I hate sitting too close to the screen at the movies – but all of that went out of the window as soon as it started. With less than half a month left to 2016, I feel pretty safe in saying it was my favourite film and best lead performance I’ve seen all year. While elegantly shot and full of oh-so-tasteful-and-French interiors, it’s very much a Paul Verhoeven film, provocative and full-blooded.

Elle begins with the most unsettling use of a cat’s face since Jonesy the Ginger Tom watched a crew member die horribly offscreen in Alien. This time, the impassive feline eyes witness the violent rape of its owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), a woman in her 50s who is assaulted in her flat by a masked intruder. It’s not an uncommon scenario in movies, but Michèle’s reaction afterwards gives a good warning that this movie is about to subvert your expectations over and over again. After her attacker leaves, Michèle chucks the dress she was wearing in the trash, takes a bath, and orders food. She doesn’t call the police, for personal reasons revealed slowly over the course of the movie. Instead she changes the locks to her apartment and coolly informs her friends about her rape over a fancy dinner. All in all, Michèle’s intent is to simply compartmentalise and move on, but it seems that the unknown rapist is not done with her yet and his creepy texts make every man in her life a suspect.

This sounds like a setup for a psychological thriller, which Elle is, but at times the mystery of the masked man feels like it takes a backseat to the thrill of simply following a fascinating, singular character played by an actress at the height of her profession without fear or vanity. She is the kind of ballsy, mean, damaged, funny, cutting, complicated, don’t-give-a-f*** character that is almost exclusively a domain of male actors in movies these days. A large chunk of the film is taken up with Michèle’s interactions and relationships with people in her life, and there’s a lot going on in her life for sure. She runs a successful video-game company with her best friend Anna, where she’s disliked by the majority of her younger male employees. There is her amiable but rather useless grown son and his bitchy pregnant girlfriend; an ex-husband who is dating a much younger yoga teacher; an affair with her friend Anna’s husband; Michèle’s mother who mortifies her with her love of Botox, heavy make-up and young men; and a handsome neighbour who she’s having intense erotic fantasies about.

All the while, the memory of the assault and the ongoing stalking loom over the proceedings, and things turn out to be a lot less cut-and-dry than the typical revenge thriller would have it. The movie’s turn of events could be seen as hugely problematic by some, but to my mind it simply acknowledges the fact that human beings are complex, their sexual desires don’t always veer towards wholesome and nice, and they don’t always react in proper, approved ways. It takes a lot of skill to pull off this gleeful, confronting mix of horror and comedy of manners, but this made-in-heaven match of director and lead actress manage it and how.

P.S. Movie cat watch: Michèle’s British Shorthair is gorgeous.

The Piano Teacher

pianoteacher_1130_430_90_s_c1Michael Haneke’s Hidden was one of those strange unsettling films with one truly shocking scene that lingers in your mind for a very long time, so I was curious to see more of his stuff. The Piano Teacher certainly ticks the controversial and shocking boxes, but I’m afraid I was less than impressed this time around.

Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a 40-ish teacher at the conservatory of music in Vienna. She lives with her overbearing mother who still treats her as if she was a little girl, and the two sleep in the same bed… so yeah some massive psychological issues there. Words to describe Erika would be, severe, unsmiling, cold, harsh, uptight, distant, repressed. She also leads a secret life visiting porn shops, where the male clients are made visibly uncomfortable by her matter-of-fact presence. Sometimes she locks herself in the bathroom with a razor, doing something I’d rather not describe, suffice to say it made me cover up my eyes for a while. She is without a question a deeply disturbed woman – for reasons the film never really explains – but there seems to be a sort of stable routine in her life, which is rocked when one of her students, a handsome young man named Walter, takes an interest in her, resulting in a sexual battle of wills.

I’m guessing the film was meant to be some sort of unflinching, brutally honest look at repressed sexuality, sadomasochism and gender roles, but to me it all came off as rather silly, overwrought and not in the least bit plausible. Sometimes a film just feels off right from the start, and I got a whiff of that in the opening scene, where Erika comes home and has a terrible row with her mother, who goes through her bag and tears up what she deems an age-inappropriate sexy dress. Erika pulls at her mother’s hair, tearing out whole clumps before remorse overcomes her and mother and daughter share a tearful hug. All of this is pure over-the-top melodrama, but the film presents it in a super-serious, clinical manner, and the overall tone feels rather phony. Walter’s interest in Erika also never feels convincing – not necessarily because of the age gap or Erika’s severe make-up-free appearance. He just seems like a regular 20-something guy without any particular depth to his personality, and it’s hard to see why exactly he’d chase after someone as cold and unapproachable as Erika. Huppert is a magnetic actress who is superb at playing icy characters with a sea of boiling emotion underneath, but her efforts aren’t enough to save this film from feeling artificial and ultimately dull.