Amid the usual excitement and unusually heightened security, the 69th Cannes Film Festival kicked off Wednesday with the world premiere of Woody Allen's "Café Society," starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell.

  • Questions about Dylan Farrow's allegations of sexual abuse went glaringly unasked at the press conference, Steven Zeitchik reports.
  • An apocalyptic mood hangs heavily over the proceedings, Kenneth Turan writes.
  • "Aquarius," "The BFG," "Risk" and "The Red Turtle" are among the 11 Cannes films Justin Chang can't wait to see.

Cannes: 'Elle,' with Isabelle Huppert, brings competition to a strong close

Isabelle Huppert in "Elle." (Guy Ferrandis / SBS Entertainment)
Isabelle Huppert in "Elle." (Guy Ferrandis / SBS Entertainment)

The Dutch-born, Hollywood-friendly director Paul Verhoeven has a gift for bringing out the very best in his leading ladies, usually by forcing them to embrace the very worst. From Sharon Stone’s ice-pick-wielding femme fatale in “Basic Instinct” (1992), to Carice van Houten’s Nazi-seducing Jewish resistance fighter in “Black Book” (2006), Verhoeven has always had fun playing with his heroines’ desires and desirability, allowing them to wield their sexuality with the kind of brazen self-assurance rarely accorded women on American screens. But he also likes putting them through the wringer, as evidenced by the hideously memorable image of van Houten covered in human excrement — at once an act of degradation and the foulest sort of baptism.

Not unlike Brian De Palma, another filmmaker who likes to skirt the boundaries of good taste, Verhoeven has inspired no shortage of gender-based arguments over the years: Whether his female characters are misogynist constructs or avatars of empowerment is a topic open to continual debate and reappraisal. That seems unlikely to change with his latest work, “Elle,” a breathtakingly elegant and continually surprising French-language thriller that brought the 69th Cannes Film Festival competition to a rousing close on Saturday.

If the early reactions seem tilted in Verhoeven’s favor, it’s surely because this indecently entertaining provocation — his first film since “Black Book,” and his first to compete for the Palme d’Or since “Basic Instinct” — seems to belong equally to the French actress Isabelle Huppert, who rises to the occasion with one of the greatest performances of her very great career. In Huppert, Verhoeven has more than met his match; he has found a stunning collaborator, an actress who brings flurries of wit and tremors of complication to the sort of material that, in less assured hands, might well have tilted into outright disaster.

In “Elle,” Huppert plays Michèle, a mother, a recent divorcee and a successful video-game company executive. We know none of these things about her, however, in the startling opening scene, in which she is sexually assaulted on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. The act is quick, brutal, and filmed with nary a hint of exploitation. Verhoeven doesn’t seem to be trying to shock us; he merely seems to be dispensing with the nasty preliminaries, the better to get on with his slow and steady deconstruction of Michèle’s psyche. Most importantly, he doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that being a victim is the most interesting thing about her.

And victim, in any case, is hardly the operative word here. After sweeping up some broken crockery and taking a bath, Michèle returns to her normal routine with eerie calm. In the days that follow, she bickers with her mother and her son, and clashes with her (mostly male) co-workers. She matter-of-factly informs her ex-husband and closest friends about the attack, quietly shrugging off their horror. She thinks about what happened to her, and what she might have done differently — and when her attacker unexpectedly resurfaces, she contemplates what she might do next.

I don’t want to give away too much about “Elle,” the considerable pleasure of which lies in the steady unraveling of its secrets. (The beautifully constructed screenplay was adapted by David Birke from Philippe Dijan’s novel “Oh … ”) Suffice to say that what seems at the outset like a standard-issue rape-revenge thriller gradually becomes something deeper: a subtle character portrait and a wickedly dry comedy of manners, in which the characters' gender and power dynamics are continually being renegotiated, scene by scene.

Even uttering the words “comedy” and “rape” in the same sentence, of course, immediately risks offending certain sensibilities. And while Verhoeven doesn’t downplay or trivialize the trauma of sexual assault, he isn’t afraid to suggest that Michèle might respond to her attack in any number of difficult, troubling ways, not all of them wholly or purely negative. All in all, it's hard to imagine “Elle” working without the poker-faced reserve of Huppert’s mesmerizing performance: Always among the most steely intelligent of actors, she illuminates the mystery of Michèle’s identity, paradoxically, by holding her feelings in check.

Huppert is no stranger to exploring the outer limits of sexual debasement, as she did 15 years ago in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” which earned her the second of two best actress prizes at Cannes. No one who sees “Elle” will begrudge her for winning a third. You don’t always understand what Michèle is doing and thinking, but you cannot help but believe her, every delectably perverse step of the way.

*****

Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem in "The Last Face." (Kelly Walsh)
Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem in "The Last Face." (Kelly Walsh)

Saving one of the competition’s very best offerings for last was smart scheduling on the festival's part. It would have been even smarter had they spared us the embarrassment of Sean Penn’s atrocious “The Last Face,” which stars Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as international aid workers falling in and out of love in war-torn Africa. It’s astonishing, in this day and age — and less than a year after Cary Joji Fukunaga's scrupulous, superior “Beasts of No Nation” — to encounter a movie that so blithely presents Third World atrocities as grist for a romance between two gorgeous movie stars. It’s even more astonishing coming from Penn, who has done good work behind the camera before (“Into the Wild,” “The Pledge”), and whose own passionate commitment to humanitarian causes can scarcely be disputed.

But again and again over the course of this 132-minute movie, that sincerity proves his undoing. Climaxing with a dreadfully teary-eyed speech from Theron’s character about how “poverty attacks dreams,” “The Last Face” is both hectoring and drippy, an interminably goopy romance and a fatuous humanitarian lecture. Deservedly laughed off the screen on Friday, Penn’s film immediately supplanted Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” as the worst-received title in competition; if it's completely forgotten by next week, it’ll be a kinder fate than the film deserves.

The late screening of “Elle” also served to put a provocative bit of punctuation on a program that has featured an uncommonly rich array of movies about women. Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” Pedro Almodóvar’s “Julieta,” Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Unknown Girl” and, yes, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” — it’s an altogether astounding lineup, and the fact that many if not all of them will be headed to American theaters serves as a welcome corrective to the glut of male-centric movies that, with a few heartening exceptions, tend to clog our cinemas year-round.

In one of those peculiar three’s-a-trend coincidences, “Elle” is the third film in nearly as many days in which the plot pivots on a vicious physical attack on a woman by a man. The other two are Cristian Mungiu’s well-received “Graduation” and Asghar Farhadi’s solid if underwhelming “The Salesman,” which was acquired for North American distribution by Amazon Studios shortly before its unveiling on Friday in Cannes. The film is another of Farhadi’s characteristically thoughtful morality plays stemming from a series of dangerous, all-too-human misunderstandings: A woman in Tehran lets a man into her apartment, mistaking him for her husband; the accidental encounter leaves deep physically and psychological scars, awakening in her husband a wholly understandable yet all-consuming desire for revenge.

Beautifully acted by its three principals (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti and especially Babak Karimi), Farhadi’s movie is a grave inquiry into the many varieties of male aggression and the moral cost of punishing our enemies, especially those who turn out to be as pitifully, redeemably human as we are. Its title is a deliberate nod to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” a local production of which the husband and his wife are both performing in — a peripheral metaphor that never quite satisfyingly merges with the bigger-picture drama.

If “The Salesman” feels like a lesser achievement than Farhadi’s “About Elly,” “The Past” and his Oscar-winning masterwork, “A Separation,” it may be because it lacks the dizzyingly intricate craftsmanship of those films, which functioned like humanist detective stories: Ingeniously plotted and endlessly multifaceted, they were Hitchcockian thrillers by way of Jean Renoir. Nevertheless, the new film’s wrenching final moments ably confirm Farhadi’s standing as a dramatist of the first rank, an artist whose far-flung domestic dramas can make us feel painfully at home.


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