Tuesday, October 11, 2016
10:33 PM |
Women in Peril: The Neon Demon, The Shallows, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Elle
Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in
Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.
It is easy to dismiss Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon
(2016) as being all-surface and no substance -- which is understandable, given that the director’s work thus far, including Drive
(2011) and Only God Forgives
(2013), are intricate mood pieces made distinctive by a sharp consideration of “style is everything.” I admired Drive
and had no patience for Only God Forgives
, eventually finding them both a gilded kind of shallow. And yet perhaps the auterial drive that informs much of Refn’s filmmaking instincts has finally met its perfect subject matter in The Neon Demon
. It is after all a kind of tragic parable about a young almost innocent model (played by Elle Fanning) who is drawn to a cutthroat fashion industry in Los Angeles, and there finding her natural unbecoming beauty becoming a consuming muse for many of its creatives (agents, photographers, fashion designers) and a consuming target of jealousy for other models. In that simple premise we see Refn construct a glossy horror story that is kind of like a sombre, Prada-clad version of Dario Argento schlock. There’s blood, there’s cannibalism, there’s vampirism galore -- all done up to showcase a parable about beauty and shallowness and the extent to which our desperation allows us to become murderous animals. I’m sure I’ll never want to see this movie again, but for what it’s worth it’s intriguing, and it’s beautiful to look at, and its depravities glisten like blood under neon light.
There is much to admire in Jaume Collet-Serra’s shark attack film, The Shallows
(2016), but it is also not surprising to note that its critical consensus has downplayed the film’s success as being that of pure B-movie variety – meaning that it may genuinely thrill audiences, but the thrill is … cheap. It is certainly not the 2010s’ version of Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws
(1975), but I’m not sure either if its thrills are indeed cheap. For me, they are perfectly earned in a movie that knows how to keep its thrilling sequences well-paced, with everything else perfectly anchored by a star-turn by Blake Lively. She invests considerable emotionality and physical bravado to her role as a surfer who finds herself in a beautiful but secret Mexican beach, where unfortunate circumstances lead her to do battle with a gigantic, very hungry shark. Sure, it’s not perfect, and sure we can see, even predict, the obvious clockwork mechanism of the plot – from the sick mother backstory, to the geographic clarity of the woman vs. shark struggle, to the introduction of the totemic stranger who must become the film’s first sacrifice to demonstrate the awesome terror of being shark snacks. But most of the film somehow work in a kind of cinematic organic unity, and gives us enough reason to root for Lively’s damsel in distress. Plus the cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is gorgeous to look at, there are scenes where sometimes you cannot decide whether to scream or to go “awwww” in admiration of the images.
It has been a while since I saw Curtis Hanson’s nanny thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
, but I figured that it was about time I revisited this film given the beloved director’s recent death. I also remember this film as having pretty much scared everyone when it was released in 1992. It was a surprise sleeper hit that for a while it seemed poised to make Rebecca DeMornay – the film’s deranged villain – a huge star. (It didn’t happen. She had one or two high profile roles in big productions right after, but they didn’t climb the same reaches as Cradle.) There is a reason why it is DeMornay we remember most from this film rather than the top-billed Annabella Sciorra, who plays the witless mother and wife who slowly grows to realise that the ever-efficient nanny she has hired is actually a vengeful madwoman bent on undermining her, in a crazy plan to steal her family. DeMornay plays her nanny with a steely sheen we can recognise immediately as the iciness of a psychopath, but she subsumes it with an effortless sexiness and charm that undoes us. We are party to her plans right from the very beginning, but even when she pretends to be good, we readily believe her. DeMornay owned this role so much it has become an iconic turn of late 20th century villainous actressing, up there right beside Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct
and Glenn Close’s in Fatal Attraction
. Sciorra, on the other hand, is given the largely colorless role of unknowing victim; she knows instinctively that something is not right, but the screenplay refuses her agency – even her bravura final act that saves them all becomes perfectly perfunctory. It is of course Sciorra’s emotional battles (and her constant attacks of asthma) that become the lynchpin in our navigation of the brewing domestic horror, but it is DeMornay’s evil manipulations that finally prove delicious.
Is there such a thing as a feminist comedy of manners about rape? The idea alone appalls, and seems perfectly impossible to execute – but apparently there is one, and it comes from director Paul Verhoeven (who gave us Basic Instinct
), and it … works. The film is Elle (2016), and it follows the intimate goings on in the life of a resourceful and steely French businesswoman who has founded her very own successful video-gaming empire. Right at the very beginning of the film, we are thrust into witnessing something brutal and shocking: her rape by a masked assailant. In the immediate aftermath, the rapist leaves the scene quickly, and she gathers her nerves and her self, sweeps away the broken shards of glass and vase that are evidence of the intrusion, throws her torn dress to the trash, and then takes a long bath. Blood from her vagina coats the suds, and she brushes it away and prepares to relax. The next day, she goes to work like nothing happened, confesses to her friends and her ex-husband about the assault nonchalantly over dinner, and proceeds to nurse a strange fascination over the identity of her assailant. She somehow knows instinctively that it could only be one of the men that surrounds her life: her ex-husband who used to beat her, her best friend’s husband with whom she is ending a short affair, one of her video game designers who makes no effort to hide his hatred for his boss, her married neighbour with whom she has started a dangerous flirtation, her aging mother’s new and very young paramour, and even her good-for-nothing twenty-something son. She navigates these suspicions in a cat-and-mouse story that has her past as a shady backdrop: her father is a convicted serial killer who slaughtered 27 people in their neighbourhood one fine afternoon when she was a young girl. As played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, who made us wholeheartedly accept the dark titillation of sadomasochism in The Piano Teacher
in 2001, the character of Michèle Leblanc is a fascinating cipher, one who charms us with subterfuges of comedy as she goes about her life clearly having decided that she cannot be a victim of anything, and that she is indeed the captain of her own fate. I cannot exactly explain how this manages to work as a narrative that is empowering, compelling, and transgressive all at the same time – because in theory, it shouldn’t – but Huppert makes it work, and Verhoeven, working from a screenplay by David Birke based on the novel Oh…
by Philippe Djian, provides just the exact amount of imagistic sharpness, and depth in psychological knowledge to lift the material above the easy sinkhole of the sensational. Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc is a woman in peril, yes – but she turns that peril into her playground, where she eventually becomes its boss.
Labels: film, halloween, women
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