Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"The Handmaiden" and "Elle"

Let's look in on a few recent foreign films.

I've been putting off writing about "The Handmaiden" because it's one of the more disappointing movies that I've watched from 2016. It is an absolutely beautiful, sensual, sensitive film about two women at the center of an elaborate con - until suddenly it isn't. I was so put off by the final scene, which is outright sleazy in all the ways that the rest of the film managed to avoid, I left the film feeling a little cheated. But let's get to the good parts first.

The story takes place in WWII Korea, during the Japanese occupation. A young pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is recruited by a con-man operating under the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to become the new handmaiden of a Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who Fujiwara intends to seduce and marry. Hideko lives under the thumb of her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who keeps a collection of rare antiques, including erotica. Sook-hee, using the name Tamako, learns more and more about the workings of the household and about Hideko's aunt (Moon So-ri), who killed herself. She also finds herself falling in love with Hideko as Fujiwara puts his plan in motion.

Director Park Chan-wook gives us lush visuals and a wonderful air of mystery as the labyrinthine plot unfolds. Hideko and Sook-hee's relationship develops through several private and then intimate encounters, which are placed in counterpoint to Fujiwara's courtship of Hideko. The performances are very good, especially Kim Tae-ri's as Sook-hee explores the luxurious house and grows increasingly worried about Fujiwara's plots. Park mirrors his images of the two women in thoughtful ways, and does several variations on seeing the same scene twice from two different POVs, to great effect. The sex scenes are admirably restrained, erotic without feeling exploitative, and true to the characters.

That's why it is such a disappointment when the reveals come in the third act, and suddenly the film is awash in sordid material. It's like watching a slightly risqué costume drama suddenly go full Quentin Tarantino. Everything hinted at becomes blatantly explicit, often in extremely cringeworthy ways. Worst of all, the portrayals of sexuality gain an uncomfortable titillating quality, and the ending just left me cold. This isn't the first time that Park Chan-wook has changed gears so quickly in a film. "Oldboy" has a similar structure, where the finale unfolds in a series of ghastly shocks. "Oldboy" was explicitly a genre film from the beginning, though, while "The Handmaiden" could at least be mistaken for a prestige picture at the outset. In the end I'm extremely mixed about the film, appreciative of the craft, but unable to say I really enjoyed the whole experience.

Now "Elle" is a more down-to-earth psychological thriller, also concerned with a woman in crisis. This is Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), a businesswoman who runs a video game company and has a prickly, demanding personality. When she is attacked and raped by a masked home intruder, she tries to soldier on as best she can. However, when the rapist sends taunting messages to her, she starts looking at the people in her life more closely. There's Michèle's ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her grown layabout son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz). Then there's her current lover Robert (Christian Berkel) who is married to Michele's best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny). And finally there's the handsome new neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte).

Rape and revenge films are always a tricky proposition, but "Elle" benefits by approaching the subject through its character study of a complex central character. Isabelle Huppert's Michèle is not someone easily shaken, and her reactions to her assault are almost comically mild at first. It's only when she realizes that the attack was directed at her personally that she begins to act, questioning and testing those around her. Huppert's performance is a treat, revealing many different sides of Michèle, bad and good. She isn't a particularly likeable person, but her actions are fascinating. The way that she engages with her rapist, in particular, is sure to be a controversial choice.

This is the first film I've seen in a long time from Paul Verhoeven, and is considerably less of a genre piece than I was expecting. There are some intense sequences of violence, but otherwise the film is a fairly restrained domestic drama. Much of the running time is taken up with Michèle's interactions with friends and family in everyday settings, and if you took out the assault storyline, the film would still stand on its own. I found the subplots with Michèle's son and her struggles at work to be strong arcs, even if they weren't as compelling as the central conflict. The events play out unrealistically, perhaps, but the execution is so good, I'm not inclined to complain.


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