Verhoeven (Fr 2016) Isabelle Huppert
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 14 Mar 2017; Ticket: £9.75
Many fingers in the pudding
Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ like many of today’s movies, opens with the Money. The Money people, the Investor’s names, fade in and out through the film’s opening credits. Of course every image tells a story and after viewing the ‘Elle’ credits, if you follow the Money, you get the finance story.
It goes something like this. Once upon a time finance for feature films came from one or a small number of main sources who Ok’d the project’s script, talent and production team including the director. Personal relations were often important in getting projects off the ground and many projects although subject to the signing off of the final cut by the Money, would more or less be left to trust, with the director given some leeway in bringing his interpretation of the script to realisation.
My thinking is that this ‘old’ production format is now often superseded. Now there are often a large number of financial players investing in the production of a feature film. The major players, TV channels and theatrical distribution companies provide the core finance and the rationale for other investors to come in and spread the risk endemic in the business. But the risk has appear of low order to bring the back end finance on board. So the normal requisites of proven director production team and talent are of course put in place. But added to this, a new degree of attention is paid to the script and scenario of feature movies. To attract a wider range of investors a format of script is demanded which is qualitively different from traditional script designs. The script has to have a ‘wow’ factor, a spectacle format as its definitive statement. Scripting craft no longer cuts the mustard. The script has to promise: ‘Money’. It has to have the meachanics of money.
Once talent and director were in place, old Hollywood built its scripts on the concept of ‘the through story’ more or less linked to the idea of character/life development. The new movie scripting does not do character development; and the through story concept is replaced by ‘events’ which dominate and define the scenario. Modern scripts, as exemplified by’Elle’ resemble adverts. Adverts don’t do character development, (obviously their short duration doesn’t quite allow this) but the point of the ads is completion. In the ads the characters are completed by the product they use. The characters are usually enigmatic constructs, emblems of desired attributes who in the script are associated with a consumer product. The attractive woman in the shower is completed by the washing gel that sets off her hair or her body. There is one event, or perhaps sequence of events (as in automobile ads), that links product and character completion.
Like adverts contemporary scripts don’t have character development. The characters are effectively completed by the product, which is a developed scenario that comprises a series of events. What these ‘events’ comprise doesn’t matter as long as they are spectacular, a huge variety of events can be bolted on to the core of the film. The efficacy of stylistic juxtaposition will seamlessly assemble all the parts togather.
Verhoeven’s Elle is constructed out of a series of events, played out so as to escalate through the duration of the script. The characters are loose constructs comprising of types that are representative of the demographic target audience. Michelle Blanc is a type of successful business woman with a type of dark past. Construed as an enigma who undergoes a series of either real or imagined ordeals, she has no more intelligibility than the woman in the shower gel advert. But instead of a ‘shower event’ we have a series of ‘violent rape events’ which complete her being in the world. The darkness of her past, the darkness of her video game business give a phantom depth to the assaults on her body. The script remains coy about her degree of complicity, preferring to wrap up Michelle in the mystery of her sexual completion. This gives the film producers and the PR department of the distributors some wriggle room in which they can disingenuously plead the violent rape scenes may be construed as real or imagined; but that if imagined explained by Michelle’s traumatised past.
Michelle’s traumatised past like most of the events in the film feels like a bolt-on section that exists to fill out the film with spectacle. The core of the film is the spectacle of Michelle, legs akimbo, (Huppert performing like a inflatable sex doll) being slapped about by a ludicrous ‘Batman-like’ intruder into her house. As this is a repetitive spectacle the script/scenario needs bolt on events; a bad psychopathic daddy, a fallatio scene, a lesbian scene, a sexually violent video game, a mother death bed scene, car crash scene (without airbag!) etc. This pans out to a two hour film, some of it slightly tongue in cheek, but a film nevertheless. None of the bolt on’s are essential to ‘Elle’, any could have been left out without effecting the film in any respect except its length. And half way through it is clear the movie is painfully too long as there is almost nothing in Elle except padding.
The film reviewers seem to like ‘Elle’. Film reviewers are of course part of the assemblage of the cinema industry, and their role in the film machine is to put bums of seats, because this is an industry, and no bums no seats no jobs. Occasionally for form’s sake they pan a movie but for the most part they seems content to play along with the distributors PR departments take on their products. The Independent reviewer judged that ‘Elle” was “…unpredictable and confounded audience expectations.” In fact I have rarely seem a more predictably dire set of events. The fact that “Elle’ has as its main character a strong successful woman played by Huppert who is an established representative of intelligent role playing, seems to have banjaxed reviewers into buying the PR hype and being cowed by obtuse political correctness into giving it good review. All those stars.
There is a better argument for seeing “Elle’ as demeaning and degrading pumped up piece of film making. There are moments, mainly in the choreographed group sequences but also in the trysts between Michelle and the masked man where Verhoeven gives a nod to Bunuel, hints that his scenario might take on the dark surreal caste of a Bunuel movie. But Bunuel’s films are underscored by a moral vision. Moral doesn’t make money, and Verhoeven, after a couple of nods gets on with the simple mechanics of bolt-on film making. Elle is the product of opportunistic hypocrisy that presents sexual violence as spectacle, wrapping up fake female empowerment as a saleable product that can make the return on Money. And speaking of money, Isabelle Huppert could make a bundle selling anti-wrinkle cream. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org