Paul Verhoeven’s American phase was too nasty to last, really, with movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers giving the audience what they initially thought they wanted, and then cranking up the vulgarity to hysterically uncomfortable levels. (Even Hollow Man, the Dutch director’s weakest project, had a main character who pervs out immediately upon receiving superpowers.) Verhoeven’s films outside of the states, however, tend to swap the 2×4 for a stiletto. Elle, his first feature since 2006’s Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments.
Maleficent (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) does sort of a “Wicked” number on the story of Sleeping Beauty’s evil sorceress, casting her as the tragic figure of a dark fantasy (but not too dark for children—barely) of a revisionist fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a fairy who watches over and defends the natural and supernatural wilds from human assault. With her magnificent leathery wings and curled horns, she has the look of a beautiful demon (even her cheekbones are sharpened to an edge that look like they could cut an unwary lover to ribbons) but is at heart an innocent, a primeval force whose emotions are pure and motives without guile. Her betrayal, at the hands of a human (Sharlto Copley) who was once a friend and lover, is an assault so personal and intimate and disfiguring that children can’t help but feel the transgression as a terrible, horrible wrong while adults see it as a form of rape. It is as powerful a dramatic moment you will see in an American film, let alone a mainstream spectacle, and coupled with Jolie’s committed performance (ripples of personality and conflicted emotions, as well as a playful sense of humor, play under even her iciest moments), it gives the film a power beyond the CGIed-to-monotony fantasy designs and magical creatures.
Not to slight Elle Fanning, who plays the princess Aurora as another innocent whose purity gets under Maleficent’s vengeful shell. Fanning has the ability to radiate pure joy and wonder and does so, but Jolie shows us that the potential for love is still within her, merely buried under rage and hatred and vengeance. It is a righteous revenge film, but with a feminist twist and a redemptive journey. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz: “The movie is a mess, but it’s a rich mess. It has weight. It matters.”
The five featurettes are quite brief (the longest, “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” runs only eight minutes) and there are five deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Disney Anywhere Digital HD copies.
A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) will stand as the final film completed by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his untimely death in February and that alone is reason enough to see the film, adapted from the post 9/11 novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn, a music video veteran who becomes more accomplished with each feature. Hoffman has the ability to lose himself in his roles and as Günther Bachmann, the leader of covert German intelligence agency that monitors potential terrorist activity, he seems to pare down a performance to give us a man who betrays nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling yet radiates a gentle warmth for his team (made up of superb German actors Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, and Franz Hartwig). All we really know is his loyalty to his country and to his crew, and they return that loyalty in spades.
A suicide attempt, hauntingly staged: Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) walks across a New York City bridge on a pleasant day, and at one point abruptly dodges out of frame. The startled reaction of a passerby tells us where she goes. The rest of the movie is an attempt by Eleanor—and her family, friends, and husband Conor (James McAvoy)—to figure out what happens after she survives her fall. This is the backbone of a film with an earnest disposition and a complicated release history.
The name: It’s explained that Eleanor’s parents are Beatles fans. That’s cute, although it’s hard to understand what the gimmick lends the movie other than gravity-by-association with the Fab Four’s plaintive song.
Austrian director Michael Haneke has often been accused of casting a cold, even sadistic, eye on the characters who suffer through cruelly uncompromising films like Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Caché, and The White Ribbon. That detached, clinical style, demanding, above all, that we watch and be implicated in what happens on-screen, informs Amour as well. What’s new is Haneke’s ineffable tenderness toward iconic actors Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, and Emmanuelle Riva, 85, as their characters succumb to age, illness and death. A lesser director might descend to melodrama, cliché, bathos, Lifetime TV sentimentality, Big Scenes to sex up this kind of unglamorous subject matter. Haneke remains scrupulous and austere: emotionally, morally, aesthetically. A relentless and shattering masterwork, Amour breaks heart but satisfies soul.
A cultivated Parisian couple in their twilight years, Anne and Georges have “always coped,” as Dad later tells a concerned but useless daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Former music teachers, they attend a concert by an outstanding protégé; a grand piano has pride of place in their cozy living room, filled with a lifetime of books, photographs, recorded music. When they return to their apartment after the concert, we watch the two move through familiar spaces, chatting in that companionable, half-heard way people do when they’ve lived together for years and years, “Did I mention that you look pretty tonight?” Georges inquires.
The familiar movie faces are eroded by age, but lost beauty lies just beneath the ruined flesh: Riva illuminating Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Trintignant Judas-ing the woman he loves in The Conformist. Both actors show their new masks to the camera sans embarrassment or apology. Intelligence, integrity and a striking sense of character present and accounted for dominate.
White Material (Criterion)
Claire Denis’s debut feature, Chocolate (1988), took on the legacy of French colonialism in the West African country of Cameroon through the eyes of a young French woman recalling her childhood growing up in the tensions of race, class and dislocation. Thirty years later she returned for White Material, which takes on many of the same issues from an older, more experienced perspective, both in terms of the artist and our protagonist.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, French by ancestry, African by birth. Denis was raised in Cameroon until the age of 13 and the experience still clearly haunts her, but Maria is no stand-in for Denis. Maria is a woman in an unnamed West African trying to hold on to her family coffee plantation that her family no longer cares about while a civil war rages around her.
The film opens in the midst of chaos and fear as rebels advance on this dusty patch of country and Maria defies the tide of evacuation to return to her farm. Huppert’s incarnation of the intensity and will of Maria, beyond logic or safety, powers the film. She is maddeningly single-minded, risking not just her life but her family and the day workers she rounds up to help harvest the crop when her employees run off. She refuses to acknowledge the danger and hides the truth of the situation from everyone else. Meanwhile armed child soldiers wander the property, looting the “white material” of European habitation, and rebels close in as one rebel leader (Isaach de Bankolé) bleeds out in a corner of the plantation.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
The Lacemaker (La DentelliÃ¨re) was shown in the 1977 New York Film Festival. Claude Goretta, the director, and Isabelle Huppert, who costarred with Yves Beneyton, were interviewed before the film had opened commercially. The Lacemaker is the story of a young girl, employed at a beauty parlor, who falls in love with a student very different from her in aspirations and in intellect. The affair fails and the girl is left suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown.
Judith M. Kass: In the films of yours that have played here, The Invitation and The Wonderful Crook (Pas si mÃ©chant que Ã§a…), events give the appearance of going along well and then something happens to disrupt the order. Does the idea of change causing social and personal disruption interest you particularly?
Claude Goretta: What interests me is the idea of common lives which can show us that people are deep inside a situation in which they can express something else, something the others don’t see. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t always have the means of expressing their sensibility. In The Invitation the people show the others very little of themselves. They have a richness inside that others don’t notice. And the problem for me as the director is to show the audience that the people on the screen are much more interesting than what they show to the others. It’s the problem of “the lacemaker.” She’s a girl without culture and she’s naturally silent. And people today, facing this sort of character, take the silence as a denial and not as a way of accepting the world. They think the silence is something against them. The problem of the student is that he has a theoretical idea of life and no experience at all. He can’t have a fundamental communication with the girl because he lacks experience of life. He’s not a bad boy; he’s not worse than the others. But this experience is a flop for him because of his youth. For me, the students are caught in a sort of closed world. Their generosity, all the high ideals of life, are theoretical. When they are confronted with real life, it’s quite different. I think in our lives we always have been either somebody’s lacemaker or somebody’s FranÃ§ois [the student]. But we are always responsible for somebody else, but we don’t know it sometimesâ€”that we are responsible for the other.