Such is the mythic quality of the December festivities that when Good Fortune happens during any other month, it can be difficult not to reach for the glittery Yuletide vocabulary to capture the sense of celebration

THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR?

Preston Sturges’ 1940 comedy is about an office clerk conned by colleagues into believing he has won a huge prize at a local department store. It all gets out of hand when he and his fiancee start spending the money like there’s no tomorrow. Or indeed, like it’s, er, Christmas in July.

This year, I’ve prided myself of covering a film with at least some mention of Christmas here on a monthly basis. Christmas In July just yearns to be included this month. And it would have been, had my own Christmas not come on 26th of the month when I was called to Guy’s Hospital in London for my own kidney transplant!

So, I’m still recovering, low in energy, on the mend but without my laptop since I’m staying close to the hospital for my regular check-ups. For the moment, my review of Sturges’ film can wait. When I am back with my computer and notes on the film, I will edit this page accordingly.

Until then, I conclude with all good wishes to my readers and supporters,
Catherine vR

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The light shines in the darkness: but the dark will do its damnedest to snuff it out

Having a version of Chris Isaac’s’ Wicked Game’ on the trailer soundtrack proved a masterstroke. the latest screen version of My Cousin Rachel is a beautifully shot and tortured tale of love, misconception, manipulation and unwise infatuation

A WOMAN’S TOUCH BRINGS COLOUR AND CONFUSION

CUTTING DOWN a huge fir tree and dragging it home by horse from the wintertime woods of the Cornish family estate is a solitary endeavour for its 24 year old heir, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, puppyish). It is as if he is attempting to prove the manhood he won’t officially achieve until his next birthday on 1st April, especially to his Cousin Rachel (a contessaesque Rachel Weisz) even though she will see none of the preparation for the estate’s Christmas party. ‘It’s to be a surprise,’ he instructs his earthy headman who, in turn shouts – with liberal use of swear words – at the younger labourers now fixing the tree in posiiton in the barn and decorating the interior. There’s to be a hefty meal, copious drinking and jaunty dancing for everyone, this night reminiscent of Far From The Madding Crowd (1967), and as in previous years when Philip’s late cousin and foster parent, Ambrose ran the house.

Except life has changed drastically since Philip’s beloved Cousin Ambrose was last there and kept the mansion like a farmhand might, complete with feet up on the dust-covered family furniture, and perfumed with the damp fur of hounds. In poor health and advised to visit Florence, the avowedly bachelor landowner there met and married Rachel, yet later fell fatally ill and in fitful, tortured letters home suggested that his new wife was both extravagant in tastes and with his money – and slowly poisoning him. So, when the new widow turns up at the Cornish mansion, Philip is confused by what to make of her, especially as he never expected such beauty and becomes immediately bewitched: his future fortune is at stake. Yet this older woman’s presence colours the previously dark, dank estate’s corners, and the locals love her: she delights in unexpectedly giving each of them a Christmas present at the party.

Tale Wrapped In A Mystery Inside An Enigma

No wonder Alfred Hitchcock chose to immortalise on screen Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca (1940, and his first American feature) and The Birds (1963) (from Du Maurier’s 1952 short story collection, ‘The Apple Tree’). His film output shared ‘My Cousin Rachel’s thrilling and sinister ambiguity. We are never altogether sure what is going on. As a fellow English person, it is as if, in the novelist’s stories the film director recognised the macabre sense of place and myth that underscores their small country’s culture, and took that persepctive with him to Hollywood. He and du MAurier seem made for each other. Hitchcock never got to make ‘My Cousin Rachel’ yet this 2017 version has his stamp all over it (The 1952 adaptation is now most notable for Richard Burton’s US screen-acting debut as Philip.)

Roger Michell, director of this latest version has an apparently eclectic filmography richocheting between such films as Notting Hill (1999), Changing Lanes (2002), Enduring Love (2004), and The Mother (2003) among others, though what stands out is their focus on the humanity of the often conflicted characters. So, while he must contend with the strictness of the story being told from the youthful niaive Philip’s experience, Michell who also adpated the book, creates a fine balance not only between the two main characters but also between what we know and cannot know about the enigmatic Rachel. Any misgivings about sheltered Philip’s limited perspective are shaded by the exquisite beauty of Mike Eley’s cinematography and the Caravaggioan-style lighting of almost every scene. The heady tension between Rachel and Philip is ably levelled by Iain Glen as the young man’s cautious godfather and Holliday Granger as his daughter, Louise, Philip’s closest friend.

Sexual Mores Of A Future Past

Every film and novel, whenever they are set cannot help but be of their time. Michell’s My Cousin Rachel is no different. At times, our contemporary mindset is too heavily emphasised (Granger, notably, has a very medern face) when it might have been better suggested. Only momentarily do we sense how trapped the assertive Rachel must have felt by both her English husband and now her younger distant cousin’s mindset and added callowness. (Being a potential ‘cougar’ is seen to be not all it is cut out to be.) From our 21st Century perspective, we recognise Rachel’s shameless sexual liberation which sometimes makes it difficult to understand Philip’s innocence of another era, The violence that disturbingly blasts from him however reveals what his masculinity ‘allows’ him.

The colourful warmth and joy of the estate’s Christmas celebration turns out to be a momentary break of happiness and togetherness, even as Philip’s gift of his mother’s pearl necklace to Rachel before they arrive at the decked out barn will cast its own shadow against her white swan neck. It was not yet Philip’s to give. The festive sheen here is cosmetic and temporary. It is what lies beneath appearances that sends shivers.


New testament: sentient android David is plutocrat Peter Weyland’s Miracle of Creation

Taking place a decade after the similarly December-set Prometheus, it turns out that it is the robot mind rather than earthly humanity – including the film’s director – who knows quite where it is heading

IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU WISH YOUR CREWMATES “MERRY CHRISTMAS”

At the very beginning of Ridley Scott’s sequel to Prometheus (2012) and the sixth film in the Alien franchise, two men stand together in a luxurious minimalist white room, all but empty except for a handful of undoubted classics of Western Art and design. It is a flashback to Guy Pearce’s youthful Weyland (whom we saw as a aged man in the earlier film) showing then new humanoid, David (a superb Michael Fassbender who doubles as future android, Walter) his collection of other examples of humanity’s excellence. They include a Bugatti chair, a Steinway piano, Michelangelo’s David, and, on the wall behind them, Piero Della Francesca’s Fifteenth Century oil painting, ‘The Nativity’. It is notable that all these masterpieces are identified by the name of their creator: David is clearly being shown his place. And when Weyland requests he then pour him sone tea, a look of definite resentment flashes across the highly intelligent android’s face. Undoubtedly, there shall be trouble ahead..

Flash forward to December 5th, 2104 and spaceship, Covenant is smoothly hurtling through the Cosmos en route to a New World with a team of scientists in suspended animation for the journey’s duration and a cargo of frozen human embryos intended to establish a new population. As with its late founder, the ambition of the Weyland Corporation knows no bounds. That is, until harsh winds destroy the ship’s solar sails and set in motion the emergency waking up of the crew. An intensely emotional sequence of disaster and devastation ensues with the horrific death of the Captain in a pod blaze (James Franco in a shortlived but memorable cameo). Cue Billy Crudup’s new and clearly inexperienced leader, Chris being forced between a rock and a hard place decisionwise. No one is in the mood for returning to their pods but going off course to investigate a clear signal from a close and habitable planet is not the smartest of choices either. He commands the ship to make a detour – to a place which turns out to hold a strange familiarity.

Boldly Going To Where No One Really Wanted Him?

As the acclaimed director of Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979), both of them recognised as sci-fi masterpieces, Ridley Scott is getting dangerously close to cashing in all of the much-deserved integrity chips he amassed from the critical and popular successes during the first chapter of his career. The commercial world might hope to profit from recognised movie successes but it is questionable whether any of us would have requested further sequels to either film had they not been presented before us. To be fair, however, having given us Prometheus as a prequel to the first original Alien, and choosing not to tie up ends, then forced the production of at least another movie to fill in the story gap. The trouble is that Alien: Covenant doesn’t, and, indeed, seems to go off at a complete tangent by its end. For a cinemagoer such as myself who is not naturally at home watching space-set blockbusters, the series is gtting dangerously close to paralleling that of the Star Wars franchise, and I long ago lost interest in that.

That’s not to say that Alien: Covenant doesn’t have its plus points. Scott has never been afraid of creating both vast universes and landscapes and the detailed and visceral internal landscape of the human body. His vision is Blakeian, and reminiscent of Eva Szasz’s animated short, ‘Cosmic Zoom’ (1969) [1]. There is certainly suspense too and definite shocks, but there feels nothing essentially new or innovative about what we are being shown, including the too obvious ending. (The majority of the crew too are nondescript: clearly there purely to be monstrously despatched.) Possibly the only imaginative suggestion is of future android on android action when most of us had only got as far as the thought of Gigolo Joe in A.I (2001) and 2015’s Ex Humana‘s Alicia Vikander-syle sexbots. Yet for all the film’s undoubted attention to detail, there is some essential laziness when it comes to the plot. As with Prometheus audience members should surely not find themselves rolling their eyes at the obvious stupidity of the astronauts. Frankly, if these scientists are some of the best of their generation, we deserve where we’re headed…

A Creation Story That Lost Its Way

The point is that David is well aware of human frailty from his very beginning. He has no desire to be a ‘boy’ like Pinocchio. And while he once asked Weyland: ‘If you made me, who made you?’ it is no longer of any concern to the superior android. He is always the smartest guy in the room, even when he meets his (downwardly-adapted) ‘brother’, the kindly Walter. David is his father’s ‘son’. He is an amoral genius, his behaviour fuelled by a soulless scientific curiosity as if the universe is his lab. In the depths of his mind seems to be the one core heartless question: ‘I wonder what would happen if…?

To my mind, part of the genius of Blade Runner, one of my all-time favourite films is during the stand-out ‘tears in rain‘ scene when our hearts break for Rutger Hauer’s doomed Replicant who sees his end and asks the same questions humans do about their purpose and place in the world. David, however conjures up no such empathy. He seeks only annihilation of any race he encounters – for his sport.


Doomed future: death comes for a civilised world

Faith and human hope are given short shrift in Alien: Covenant. A hint of the season is seen in the Christmastree structure of a twinkly antennae, but that is the last thing on their minds, even for believer, the niaive Chris. And rational science and flawed Homo Sapien are no match for either alien bio-terror or A.I evolution. The future appears very bleak indeed. David proves the very symbol of an over-reaching humanity.

Alien: Covenant is currently on general release

[1] https://youtu.be/VgfwCrKe_Fk


Disappearing Act: one woman’s walk into a bleached-out world

From a tragic story told backwards from differing viewpoints emerges a searing indictment of the US mental health system

A BLEAK MIDWINTER GHOST STORY

WHEN THE remains of a woman were found, a journal beside her, in a deserted weather-worn Concord, New Hampshire farmhouse in May 2008, it was assumed that she had taken her life months earlier. An opening letter dated December 14th began with the words ‘To whoever finds my body…’ (It ended a page later with the boxed words, ‘Jesus take me home‘.) Until a police officer began reading the 4-month worth of diary entries to discover a chilling account of Linda Bishop’s isolated descent into starvation and psychosis during the cruellest of recorded New Hampshire winters.

And nobody knew she was there. Discharged from the psychiatric facility of New Hampshire Hospital in October 2007 after a year, without follow-up support, medication or even notification given to any friend or family member, Linda, 52, stumbled quickly into homelessness. Fortuitously, she came across the empty house which sheltered her, a nearby stream (and later snow-melt) to provide water, and as she recorded ‘the strangest looking apple tree‘ laden with fruit. The farmhouse was devoid of electricity: the only heat was from a still connected pilot light. And in the attic where she arranged an armchair to observe the natural world she loved through a window, were boxes of books belonging to the owners. For a short while, Linda almost lived the isolated frugal life she craved, but very soon she became a prisoner of her own distorted mind.

Trapped In An Unforgiving Natural World

The work of debut directors, producer brothers Jedd and Todd Wilder, God Knows Where I Am is a disturbing and incredibly sad film. Its jigsaw puzzle format is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s celebrated Rashomon (1950) and Carole Morley’s documentary, Dreams Of A Life (2011). In the latter, the filmmaker sought to discover the life story of Joyce Vincent whose body had lain undiscovered in her London flat for two years. Whereas there was too much supposition about Vincent in that viewers could only guess at how she felt about living alone and the increasingly limiting trajectory of her life, watching Bishop’s tragic story unfold seems far more intrusive. Lori Singer (Footloose (1984) and tv series, Fame) brings both enthusiasm and wistful quietness to her reading of Linda’s time-diminishing words.

Cinematographer, Gerrardo Puglia weaves atmospheric naturalisitc shots that bring to mind Tarkovsky and painter Andrew Wyeth with a catholic selection of both digital and historic cameras and film to suggest what Linda saw. Images of trees at night are Edenic, the frost and snowbound days chilly white and dreamlike, and Linda’s increasingly hungry thoughts of Thanksgiving Dinner coloured like Fifties magazine adverts. The interviewees ranging from local officials and journalists to family members and friends were filmed inside the house – which has its own tale to tell as a one-time family home to a working farm. Indeed, owner Brian Smith talks of visiting and seeing a person at the window at the time Linda was living there, but being unable to find anyone in the vast building.) This is a documentary that has the shiver of a ghost story about it.

Piece by Piece Unpicking Of The American Dream

To all intents and purposes, Linda Bishop had once been an effervescent character, bright, creative and well-adjusted and a good mother to daughter, Caitlin and a life-enhancing friend. Born into a 1950s white middle class American family, hers was an apparently happy and loving upbringing benefiting from an era of burgeoning consumerism combined with her parents’ love of the wild and determination to teach their daughters to thrive within it. Flashbacks to cinefilm holidays capture Linda and her beloved sister, Joan enjoying Christmas dancing in front of the fireplace.

Caitlin, in her 20s can only talk of her memories of a happy childhood and her hatred for who her mother became. Joan Bishop loves her sister still but is clearly torn by how Linda died alone without help and starving. (In Linda’s apple-only diet we are reminded of the hungry mother in last year’s I,Daniel Blake. We know how Linda’s tale ends, where her writing is taking her and us, her unknown listeners from the very beginning of this thought-provoking documentary. She does too: she writes of God, and wonders when Advent begins, she writes out Psalm 23 and records Epiphany when the Kings arrived at the Bethlehem stable. She can only hope that ultimately she is not alone, even as she has been left entirely alone. Her footprints in the snow disappear with the social contract that was supposed to protect her.


Tree of such promise: ultimately a haunting mirage

At Christmas, Linda writes of finding sorrow in the coloured lights she can see, not in her house, but in those across the way. A police officer tells of his view of a neighbour’s large flatscreen television from a window in the farmhouse had Linda only chosen to look, and then seek help. Ms Bishop’s story is a tragically ever-diminishing one, expertly and hauntingly told.


Bright lights, big city: every window hides a story

London’s flickering neon, streamlining car lights, and walls of glass reflected back from black oil puddles mesmerise and distort a contemporary tale of everyday murder, corruption and fundamentalism

A DICKENS OF A CAPITAL NEO-NOIR

STILL YOUTHFUL BUT weathered private investigator, Tommy Akhtar (movie-carrying class act Riz Ahmed) is reminiscing about the time he brought his West London schoolmate, Shelley home. And how his Ugandan Asian father (a scene-stealing Roshan Seth) was delighted to learn that she was studying ‘A Christmas Carol’: ‘I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.,’ he intones with huge pleasure. He might as well have been talking about his son’s future life. Tommy, back home with his sick Dad, seems both trapped by his teenage years and the then-tangled relationship between himself, Shelley and her boyfriend, Stuart – and now all but washed out by London’s teaming rain, strip lighting and his seemingly constant dependence on booze and fags.

When a call girl, Melody (Cush Jumbo) enters his pokey office (complete with bottle of whisky, and slatted blinds to peer between) to ask him to find her friend and colleague who has mysteriously vanished, he relishes the challenge. It’s not an apparently big endeavour but he regards himself as clever enough to find the missing person. Except that when a different body turns up in the hotel room where he was expecting to find the vanished girl, still alive, Tommy is drawn into a case mired in drug-dealing, corrupt developers, and young Islamist men overkeen to set the city to rights. Plus the reappearance of Shelley – now looking like Billie Piper – rattling the cage of Tommy’s heart.

Slick Dizzying Lightshow Captures London In Flux

Directed by Pete Travis, A City Of Tiny Lights is adapted by Patrick Neate from his 2005 crime thriller of the same name. Travis’ 2012 sci fi actioner, Dredd is set in Mega City One, ‘a vast, violent metropolis where felons rule the streets.’ So, not a million miles away from a 21st Century London where different factions vie for top-dollardom. It is into such a tangled labyrinth of corrupted interests that Tommy is dragged. Except that as a neo-noir thriller, Neate heavily underscores the influence of Phillip Marlowe. It doesn’t always come off, and indeed the cliches of seediness, sharp one-liners, and moral waywardness become wearisome. It is cinematographer Felix Wiedemann who brings a fluid lit zip to an often under-powered tale.

Given the theme of gentrification and urban development (Tommy’s teenage friend, Lovely – James Floyd – is now a property developer), one must credit the filmmakers with finding enough of the city that hadn’t been swallowed up by skyscrapers and ravenous cranes in which to set Tommy’s notably nocturnal life. But, ultimately, there is too much flashback and emphasis on Tommy’s youth, and the contemporary London tale becomes lost and confused, though not enough for viewers to mentally scream at Tommy to be very careful who he tells stuff to. Don’t they teach that in the first week of Private Investigator School?

Not Dark Enough For An Unhappy Ending

It is not that neo-noirs never tie things up with a happy ending but the monochrome needs to be expertly balanced. That mention of Dickens’ most famous novella at the start is unashamedly extended by the end. On the one hand, the 1843 London Christmas ghost story still has resonance today and is always ready for new adaptation. But the out-of-the-blue seasonal gathering of Tommy’s friends and family around the dinner table with his Santa-hatted father at its head feels too forced. (The Queen’s Speech on the telly with a woman clearly not Her Maj jolts.)

Yet it is made clear at this meal that while we all carry the ghosts of our past wrapped in the heavy cloaks of secrets and lies, those we love will help loosen and unshackle our chains. Even Melody turns up and reveals her real name is Laura. It might be Tommy’s business to uncover others’ true stories but the cost of not investigating his own over the years had cost him plenty. The ghosts of the past having now been set free, the future becomes an open book. And Tommy’s interrupted love story with the underused Piper’s Shelley is given the chance to continue when she belatedly appears at the front door to join them all too.


Light and shade: It’s not all bleak for P.I Tommy Akhtar

Styled as a supposed noir, City Of Tiny Lights turns out to be surprisingly and ultimately upbeat. As if screenwriter Neate has too much of a heart for the majority of his characters, and indeed the capital city itself. The shimmer and flicker of London at night add a shivery emphasis to the sheer blackness of the city yet its ‘tiny lights’ are also reassuring in the darkness too.

City Of Tiny Lights is currently on limited release nationwide

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The light of humanity: Harold and his sister Louisa outwit Nazis at the door

A rarely told tale of the Occupation of Jersey during the Second World War reveals the kindness and cost of real-life heroism among ordinary islanders

A NEED AND A TIME TO BE AFRAID

THE EVENING OF Christmas Day, 1943, in a small village outside Saint Helier, and a family are having a sing-song around the hearth. Such is his sense of belonging and happiness within this warm gathering that sheltered Russian P.O.W ‘Bill’ (Julian Kostov) offers up a carol in his native tongue. And has not got further than a few lines before there is a harsh knocking on the front door. Silence falls sharply as Jenny Seagrove’s doughty widow, Louisa Gould opens up, only to be faced with German officers who demand to know what is going on. And then Louisa’s younger brother and teacher Harold (a low-key Ronan Keating still finding his acting feet) joins her at the entrance and promptly bursts into Russian song. ‘I’ll sing ‘O, Tannenbaum’ if you like,’ he tells the Germans, who exit, stage left. Everyone can breathe again.

Louisa who has lost both husband and one of her sons takes Fyodor – whom she names Bill, under her wing as if he were her own. Her compassion represents the international network of maternal hope that one’s own child in a similar situation would be looked after by another mother. (Imagine the power and change that would occur were all mothers to think like that at wartime!) But such becomes their friendship that she niaively has Bill work in plain sight in her grocery shop that happens to be the community hub, takes him on bike rides and to church, and visits the capital with him where Germans soldiers openly walk the streets. Meanwhile, her friend Arthur (John Hannah) is steaming open envelopes addressed to the Nazis’s island HQ at the local sorting office which he recognises as having been written by his own neighbours. He warns Louisa to be very careful.

Sunday Teatime Tale of Decency And Heroism

Based on the script by Jenny Lecoat, Louisa Gould’s great-niece, this wartime tale of Christian decency and ordinary heroism is clearly a story that needed to be told. As with other recent biographical films such as Sully: Miracle On The Hudson and Lion (both 2016), end-credit images add moving strength to the tale. We learn that Keating’s character, Harold Le Druillenec’s was the only British citizen to survive the Bergen-Belsen death camp, providing trial evidence. And in 2010, Louisa Gould, who was killed in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in 1945 was named as a British Hero of the Holocaust.

The trouble is that Another Mother’s Son is a script that feels that it has been padded out to fill the feature-appropriate 103 mins length. That’s not to say that it is not informative about the hardships endured: Louisa being unable to fulfill people’s grocery rations; the pressure of a small island community to live under and with the Nazis; and the despair of learning that Churchill had decided to send forces to France before liberating the Channel Islands. But director, Christopher Menual is primarily a tv series director – and it shows. The production values are that of a Sunday teatime drama – and for those of us who have never forgotten the excellent Anglia Television drama, Dame of Sark (1976) starring Celia Johnson and set under the same circumstances, then, Another Mother’s Son sadly offers no comparison.

Brave Generous Actions Speak Louder Than Wprds

The Christmas scene in the midst of Another Mother’s Son adds both metaphorical colour to the film (few decorations are visible in such hard times) and especially the coming together, openness and welcome that is should be central to the festival. And as also exemplified among the Polish POW officers in Katyn (2007), here too we are reminded that carol-singing is unifying, heartwarming, and can take us out of circumstances and remind us not only of Christmas but of home too – even for a scarred Russian young man who has lost faith in any God.

Louisa’s own belief is expressed in actions rather than words. She is brave to open her home to Fyodor, risking everything. Yet her hardiness of spirit that enables that good act is also seen as often harsh in her dealings with those with whom she disagrees. She speaks her mind and is fearless in telling a German Kommandant to his face that it is ‘none of his business whether or not her surname happens to be Jewish. This is an honest portrayal of a middle-aged Christian whose faults are wrapped up in Grace: she does the ‘right thing’ in spite of herself. (She has to be convinced to house the escaped POW.) And Jenny Seagrove’s is a gritty, unfussy performance that all but carries the entire film.


The cost of human courage: Harold, Louisa and sister, Ivy are arrested

It is what happens to this family who harboured him, that effectively answers Bill’s anger at the suffering inherent to war and God’s apparent silence and absence. Their kindness, self-sacrifice and bravery during a time of undoubted terror is like that of Andrew Garfield’s field medic in Hackshaw Ridge (2016). In times of war, there are people who will make a stand for humanity. And that is what matters.


All she wants for Christmas: Michele’s self-control appears on a knife-edge after a violent break-in

Few reviewers have mentioned it, but that Paul Verhoeven’s acclaimed sex-thriller is set in fairylight-lit December brings added dimension to the suspenseful tale.

NOTHING IS SACRED IN ELLE’S COLD-HEART WORLD

OF COURSE the huge Christmas tree in the offices of a zeitgeisty Parisian video game company is a striking Bazooka Joe pink. It screams contrived unconventionality. Yet the young people, mostly men, who work there, for all their presumed youth-cultural superiority to middle-aged female boss, Michele Leblanc (a glacial Isabelle Huppert) are clearly still a cut below her. Of the latest sexually violent animation that is their stock in trade, she demands that the orgasmic moans of a woman being raped by a tentacled monster be made suitably ecstatic.

Later that same day, her coarse lover, played by Christian Berkel (the husband of her friend and company co-founder, Anne Consigny’s Anna), will enter Michele’s small office demanding sex, and after drawing the blinds she will push him away and hold a wastepaper basket ready for him to pleasure himself instead. She apparently handles whatever life throws at her as a matter of fact. And the incidents of this particular working day are made all the more disturbing to us, the viewers, since they come immediately after divorcee Ms Leblanc’s violent rape the previous evening in her mansion by a masked intruder – at the very top of the film. After which, she cleared up with a dustpan and brush, took a bath, and then phoned for a takeway rather than the police, and took a hammer to bed – and, for now tells no one. Nothing phases her, and what’s more, she chooses how she then responds.

Foreign World Where The Loving Ain’t Easy

Director Paul Verhoeven has made a striking career out of controversy with movies such as Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997), and, for many, his latest does not disappoint on that score. For all the acclaim both film and actress have received in the wake of the release of Elle (and some reviews have focused so much on the mesmerising Huppert that you cannot help suspect that the critic didn’t quite know just what to make of what they were watching), it is not an easy ‘read’ on many levels.

Based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, ‘Oh’, Verhoeven originally hoped to cast Nicole Kidman in an American version. Kidman, who had co-starred alongside then-husband, Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s darkly erotic Christmas-set Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would likely have done a fine job, but it was felt a US setting would not do the story justice. Or the film be received in the same way than if it was distanced by its foreign, French setting. (As it happens, Eyes Wide Shut and Elle would make a daring seasonal double-bill at a cinema brave enough to screen it.)

A Woman After Her Own Heart?

Michele’s determination to live beyond the status of victim, to take revenge on her rapist, appears at face-value to present an empowering, feminist vision. (Additionally, such is the presentation of practically every man in the movie as incompetent and not up to her fiery independence, including her ex-husband, Richard – Charles Berling – and dim son, Jonas Bloquet’s Vincent, that it feels like we are watching a strong candidate for the flipside of the Bechdel test[1].) She stocks up on weopanry, and takes shooting lessons, but in a plot full of unexpected twists and turns – David Birke’s script contradicts Chekhov’s famous Law [2] – Ms Leblanc doesn’t actually use the armoury she accumulated in Act One. Instead, she embarks on a cat and mouse game with her assailant. as dangerous to either as the one-sided battle between Michele’s wonderfully stoic pet cat and an unfortunate garden bird. (The cat is as deserving of an acting award as the seagull in last year’s The Shallows.)

Yet piece-by-piece, an image emerges of Michele’s murderous family background which sheds a completely different light on who she is today. Back when she was ten, her religious fanatic father slaughtered all the neighbours’ children in her suburban street, and no one has ever forgotten the disturbing image of the blank-stared murderer’s daughter apparently inveigled into the crime. Michele, then, is forever trapped in time by a photograph and defined by an atrocity committed decades earlier. She, thus, remains a victim of her childhood. No wonder, then, her reactions and reasonings appear warped. Nothing else can be any worse than then. Emotionally laced-up and scathing of her dysfunctional, over-Botoxed mother who pays for a much younger male ‘companion’, there is something of the daughter in Toni Erddmann (2016) about Michelle. (Like that German film, Elle is not without its humour,) But all these women, including Michelle’s mother are trying to escape their father/husband in their own way.

A Distanced Seasonal Ritual

In the midst of her Christmastime assaults, Michelle perversely hosts a Christmas Eve dinner and invites neighbours, family, and friends. Here, as her Catholic mother and neighbours watch Midnight Mass from Rome on the television, she is reminded of the ritual of excommunication from the Church though it is not clear as to whether she is talking about her mass murdering father, or, indeed, herself. Michele appears indifferent to belief, earlier bemused by her neighbour’s large Nativity figures positioned in her front garden as a reminder of the beginning and centre of the festival, and now, the same woman’s suggestion of Grace before people begin eating. (Au contraire, Michele will earlier admit to Anna, ‘Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all. Believe me.’ She is her father’s daughter.)

In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise is accompanied by a Christmas tree in almost every scene. As he wanders ever closer towards psychological and moral danger, the flickering lights and colours of the trees appear to anchor him and offer guidance, protection and hope beyond the New York night. In the offices and streets of the Paris of Elle, the rows of white lights are neatly strung, the trees a stylishly uniform and artificial hue. They are present but seem merely to offer a decorative presence in secular France.


Cats who walk by themselves: Michele Leblanc’s interior world is inscrutable, even to us

Even among the Christian guests at Michele’s dinner party,there appears a distance between their faith and life. They do not attend church at the second most holiest time (after Easter) of the annual calendar. Nevertheless, in a secular and very dark world, they attempt to keep the flame alive: the neighbour will admit to Michele that she is given strength by her faith. And the ‘sins of the fathers’ appear to be a closed book for the niaive Vincent. His view of the Pope may well be of a holy man who walks inches above the ground, but it is his brave act that saves his mother which breaks the family ‘spell’. And it is he, like the previously free-spirited William in LoveTrue who is latterly grown up and loving enough to move the Leblanc story forward by accepting another man’s child as his own. Chillingly however, as regards Michele Leblanc, we cannot tell if she has shifted one iota.

1. http://bechdeltest.com
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

Elle can be seen at selected cinemas.

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