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.
Nicolas Winding Refn is one of those directors who pushes buttons as much with his pronouncements as his work. In an interview with The Times at Cannes a few years ago for the polarizing Thai western "Only God Forgives," he fashioned an elaborate metaphor out of the image of a birth canal — then proceeded to compare it to sex.
The Dane's appearance at the festival this year has been no less needling. Refn's "Neon Demon" played its first screening Thursday, and the movie's hyper-stylized mashup of noir, fashion films and a host of other influences quickly became the most debated movie of the festival.
In person, too, the artsploitation auteur wasted little time getting down to business as the self-proclaimed punk king of the global cinema world — a comparison that became literal in one instance. He also dropped a dis track on a countryman. Here is a sampling of his comments from the Neon Demon' news conference Friday afternoon.
How you approach the sick, ravishing object that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” is entirely up to you. Nervy feminist provocation or misogynist freakshow? Hypnotic art piece or exploitative trash? I’m still wrestling with it myself, and have not yet ruled out the possibility that it may be all of the above.
Refn, who competed in Cannes years ago with the very good “Drive” (2011) and the very bad “Only God Forgives” (2013), has in some ways surpassed Quentin Tarantino as the filmmaker with the least shame or discretion when it comes to projecting his most demented fetishes and fantasies onto the screen. This is no small thing. For all the praise directors routinely get for the honesty of their visions, it can be galvanizing to encounter one who truly operates without a filter (except, of course, for whatever filter he uses to achieve those sizzling reds and cool blues in his gorgeously tinted widescreen images).
A voluptuously arid, glacially paced evisceration of an industry that routinely leaches beautiful women of sustenance and soul, “The Neon Demon” stars Elle Fanning as a naive, fresh-faced 16-year-old beauty who moves to L.A. and becomes the sensation of the modeling world. This prompts her impeccably coiffed, nipped-and-tucked rivals to begin their (very) slow descent into murderous jealousy.
CANNES, France — The opportunity to make a feature film is, for most directors, the ultimate grail, a pearl without price, but for Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, it’s always been an offer he felt he had to refuse. Until he couldn’t.
The 62-year old Dudok de Wit, a Dutch filmmaker based in London, is not just any short-film animator. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award in that category and took home the Oscar in 2001 for his emotional “Father and Daughter.”
“When I direct a short, I do all the elements myself: the design, the backgrounds, everything, I don’t have to justify or explain, I just do it,” the filmmaker says. “With features there are always discussions, and that really puts me off. And I was not ready for the struggle of raising money.”
The Cannes Film Festival hits its one-week mark Wednesday night, and while for some that sounds like an endless amount of time, for those at the fest -- where big movies from the likes of Paul Verhoeven, Sean Penn and Nicolas Winding Refn are yet to premiere -- that's far from the end.
It's a good moment, in other words, to have a conversation about what's unfolded here at the so-called Olympics of cinema.
New administrations can mean a change in fortunes for controversial figures. But a Hillary Clinton presidency would not improve the status of Julian Assange, say those aligned with the Wikileaks founder, who remains in Ecuador's London embassy pending a Swedish extradition request.
In fact, they argue, it could well do the opposite.
"Under Clinton [Assange's situation] will possibly get worse," said Wikileaks staffer Jacob Applebaum.
As it reached a boiling point earlier this year, the #OscarsSoWhite movement and its proponents raised strong doubts about Hollywood’s willingness to address issues of equality. Serious, topical films about race were lacking, they said, and consequently so were black nominees.
At the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, those critics were given an answer. Premiering at the world's most prestigious cinema gathering was "Loving,” a fact-based drama, from the Arkansas-raised auteur Jeff Nichols, about an interracial romance deemed illicit in Virginia circa 1958.
Impeccably made and drawn closely from historical research, the film tells the relatively little-known story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a couple whose case, which eventually went to the Supreme Court, both exposed the racial divides of the time and helped bridge them.
There may not be enough female directors competing for the Palme d’Or, but there has certainly been no shortage of stories about women in the mix. It’s not the first time that assessment has been trotted out at Cannes, but oh well: It happens to be very, very true this year, and as such it’s a point worth both critiquing and celebrating.
Not that the media audience seemed to be in a very celebratory mood on Monday night, to judge by the ill-considered boos that greeted Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” a deliriously spooky paranormal thriller featuring another remarkable performance from Kristen Stewart — this time as a fashion buyer and spiritual medium haunted by her twin brother’s recent death.
Booing films off the screen is a silly yet time-honored festival tradition, and my main objection to the practice — apart from how it reduces an artistic showcase to a sporting event — is that the movies that wind up getting the brunt of it are usually those with ambiguous endings or unconventional narratives. In short, the ones that attempt the most significant or daring creative risks. (Among the recently Cannes-booed, Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love” and Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux” come to mind.) If you’ll allow me to butcher Susan Sontag, the act of booing is too often little more than the revenge of the audience upon the intellect.
The Cannes Film Festival does more than anoint the triumphs of the present, it also celebrates what’s transcendent in the past.
Which is why a crowd of admirers waited patiently in line a few nights ago, a few with autograph books and posters they hoped would be signed, to both see a new 4K restoration of a modern classic, 1992’s “Howards End,” and to do so in the presence of its director, James Ivory, and its perhaps most ethereal star, Vanessa Redgrave.
In "The Handmaiden" — a thriller told "Rashomon" style by original "Oldboy" auteur and all-around gore maestro Park Chan-wook — the two lead female characters are the narrative focus, they're the love story and, though there are times one or both seems powerless, they often gain leverage, with their minds far more than their bodies. (OK, there is plenty here involving their bodies too; this is a lesbian romance that doesn't skimp on the sex scenes.)
"I'm not afraid of this being called a feminist film, and certainly I had that intention," said Park, via an interpreter, as he sat on a rooftop deck here Sunday. Then, in his inimitably better-you-than-me-to-interpret-my-work manner, he added, "But once you start labeling movies you start focusing only on that. And I don't want to focus just on that."