I attended a double-screening last Friday evening.
The first was the much-applauded Elle, directed by Paul (Basic Instinct) Verhoeven. It stars the superb Isabelle Huppert playing Michèle Leblanc, a wealthy CEO of a games company. She is an icy, emotionless character, akin to the part Huppert played in The Piano Teacher (2001).
The film opens on the horrifically violent rape of Leblanc by a masked attacker, after which Leblanc does not, as one would expect, report the attack to the police. Instead, she calmly sweeps up the broken glass, takes a bath and then phones for takeaway sushi as if nothing had happened. Next day at work, we see her reviewing a screening of a new game with her creative team. She heavily criticises it for not having enough sex and violence and demands more. At this point, I realised that Leblanc is clearly emotionally desensitised to the actual horror perpetrated on her. We also discover in newsreel flashbacks that her father had committed multiple murders when she was a child. Scenes from the opening rape are repeated during the course of the film, including revised versions where Leblanc imagines she defended herself more successfully. I’ll stop there.
Now, this film was given five stars by The Guardian. I have never trusted their film critic since he awarded five stars to Exhibition, my all-time most-hated British film. To give five starts to Elle is utterly shameful: it is a grossly misogynistic piece of work from a director who seems to relish in the kind of exploitative brutality depicted in this film. I am astonished that Isabelle Huppert, an actress of enormous talent, actually agreed to make it.
The second film, which, by coincidence, also has an attack on a woman at its heart, was The Salesman, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, one of the most outstanding talents in cinema working today. His latest offering rightly earned him the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film of 2016. His earlier work, The Past and A Separation are masterpieces in observing the minutiae of the human condition. The Salesman is yet another wonderfully sensitive piece.
The story reflects Iranian culture and the necessity for directors to work within the guidelines of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But the restrictions in no way hamper Farhadi’s work; if anything, they enhance it.
The main protagonists of The Salesmen are husband and wife Shahab Hosseini as Emad and Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana. Due to a violent earth tremor, they are forced to vacate their apartment. With nowhere for them to go, a friend from the theatre company where they are both taking part in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman offers them a temporary apartment that, unbeknown to them, was formerly occupied by a prostitute. After the effort of moving in, Emad pops out to get some food supplies while Rana takes a shower. The door buzzer sounds and Rana, thinking that it is Emad returning, just presses the entrance door release and leaves the apartment door ajar. The camera holds on the door slowly swinging open. We cut to Emad on the street carrying groceries. He climbs the stairs to the apartment and notices some blood on one of the steps and further up bloody footprints. He rushes into the apartment, calling for his wife: she is not there and the bathroom is blood splattered. We discover that Rana has been taken to hospital by the downstairs neighbours, where she is having her head stitched. Rana refuses to involve the police and shuts down emotionally, becoming fearful of being left alone. Despite Emad’s appeal to Rana to tell him what happened, she refuses. Emad finds a bunch of keys, some money and a bloody sock while surveying the scene of the attack and he becomes obsessed with finding the perpetrator. And so begins a wonderful tangle of events that touch on the plight of women in Iranian society and the shame attached to reporting crimes of this nature. “Better to forget it”, say their neighbours. The keys left in the apartment lead Emad to a pickup truck parked in the street below and eventually lead him to the individual responsible for the attack. What follows I won’t reveal, as I wouldn’t want to spoil it.
Farhadi’s film, in comparison to Verhoeven’s, is clear: there are no scenes of the actual attack, as it is left to our imagination. Farhadi handles his film with a quiet, beautifully understated elegance, coupled with supremely intelligent storytelling. And the performances from Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are totally believable, making for a compelling experience. Farhadi is a wonderful writer-director creating work that cuts through geographical barriers. His films are imbued with empathy and his subjects are universal. Give me the restraint of Farhadi over the excesses of Verhoeven any day.
Here are the trailers for both films. ELLE
And THE SALESMEN