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[Article] – Isabelle Huppert & the Need for Female Voices

 

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Posted December 13, 2016 by

 
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Sure, there’s the cat. Everybody I know who has seen both of Isabelle Huppert’s new movies comments on the fact that she has a cat in each. As a cat fan, I applaud the inclusion. But I haven’t heard anyone talk about one other similarity which seems to me matters a great deal more, especially when considering the continuing dearth of female filmmakers. In both Elle, directed by 78 year old Paul Verhoeven, and in Things to Come, directed by 35 year old Mia Hansen-Love, Huppert’s lead character is the victim of unwanted sexual aggression from a man.

In Verhoeven’s story, the movie is largely predicated upon this. It is how the film begins and it is a recurring touchstone for the complicated character of Michele. There appears to be a part of Michele, who by day is a high-powered video game producer, which relishes the abuse provided by this anonymous attacker. She struggles with him and changes the locks on her home, but does not pursue other remedies, even after she gets a pretty good understanding of his identity, which might punish him for his crimes.

In Things to Come, the aggression is far more mild-mannered. Huppert’s character Nathalie, a whip smart but mostly subdued philosophy professor, is out drinking when a rather bland middle-aged man attempts to pick her up. When she rebuffs his initial clumsy attempt at seduction, he tries to force a kiss on her. She walks away. He then follows in a threatening manner until he has her cornered and alone, whereupon he again tries to force a kiss. She dismisses him with a rather annoyed “Leave me alone. I’m not in the mood.” Then, both Nathalie and her attacker go their separate ways.

Several things become apparent as you consider the two sequences, but they all point to the same conclusion. Hansen-Love’s use of the sexual predator is so much more real and honest, and despite its seemingly tame nature, ultimately more potent.

In Elle, the attacker is the very sexy Laurent Lafitte, tall, dark, and 20 years younger than Ms. Huppert. In Things to Come, well – truth be told, I didn’t catch the actor’s name because he wasn’t around long enough. Suffice to say, he was no Laurent Lafitte. He was middle-aged and looked every year of it.

I had initially thought that this was odd – that it was the attacker in the man’s movie that was the stuff of romance novels. What occurred to me is that the female director likely has far more insight into the general profile of the aggressive male. And perhaps he doesn’t always look like a GQ cover boy.

But of course, it’s the nature of the two attacks that constitutes the biggest difference. In Elle, Michele is raped and brutalized on multiple occasions. In Things to Come, she is the victim of petty annoyance, which is nonetheless threatening. It took me a little while to process this, because I have never been in the position that either of Huppert’s characters finds herself, but I eventually concluded that what Nathalie experiences in Things to Come, is more significant because of its very commonality. The way it is presented by Hansen-Love and Huppert makes you understand that this is a run-of-the-mill, everyday occurrence.

Why does this matter? Dramas, after all, do not exist to present everyday life. We can walk out our front door and see that for ourselves. Dramas are generally effective when they present a heightened version of reality. Surely, it would seem that Elle is presenting a heightened version of something. But this becomes tricky. Elle is so over-the-top that is deflects discussion. No one is going to argue that the attack is proper. It is a crime and the attacker would be punished in any court. (In fact, the end of the movie confirms this fact.) What we are left to debate is Michele’s masochistic response to the attacks.

But in Things to Come, the harassment is so benign that it doesn’t inspire anything beyond bemusement. And that is the point. A man physically engages with a woman without any encouragement. He then follows her out onto a deserted street and attempts to molest her. The fact that she is a strong character and he is weak means that she psychologically beats him down. But it doesn’t change the action. Yet there is no societal outrage. Nathalie doesn’t call the police. There is mere acceptance. She merely walks away, most likely relieved that she has dodged another potential problem.

Of course, I can’t prove this, but I suspect that if women had a more equal voice in creating movies, we would see more moments like this – moments that dramatize the real conflicts that women navigate every day in the real world. And perhaps, in by dramatizing this, we might be in a better position to debate whether the actions of the male lothario in Things to Come are OK or not. Because the point Hansen-Love seems to be making is that as of today, (insert your own Donald Trump remark here), no one even bats an eye.

The exaggerated fantasy of Verhoeven’s movie obviously has its place in the land of cinema. But I find myself more affected by the small sequence of petty unfairness in Hansen-Love’s movie than all the salacious sexualized violence of Elle.

Well, that and the cats.

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Jonathan Eig
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