It’s that magical time of year, where I scramble to watch anything and everything to get one day close to my goal of having actually seen everything nominated for an Oscar. While I’m a little too late to really want to do full reviews of anything, I’d like to share a few thoughts about these films, as these are going to be the sort of movie that absolutely inspire conversation.
Okay, look, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about all of what’s going on here, this is a movie I’ve wrestled with pretty much from minute 2 inside the theater where I sat alone on a Thursday night.
For those of you unfamiliar, Elle is the first French language production from legendary director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers, Showgirls) starring the “European Meryl Streep” Isabelle Huppert. Huppert stars as Michelle Leblanc, a video game developer who is raped in her home by an unknown home invader. This starts the film, as from there she attempts to grapple with family issues, relationships, work, and taking revenge on her perpetually unknown assailant.
No matter what, there are two things worthy of recognition about this film. The first is Verhoeven’s directorial hand. Steady and unblinking as ever, Elle is a film that absolutely sells the world it’s creating and is absolutely confident in whatever bizarre twists and comedic turns (yes, comedic, we’ll return to that in a second).
The other is Isabelle Huppert’s lead performance. It’s a masterclass of acting with restraint, of how to wear everything in an almost imperceptible way, and how to bounce off the people around you rather than driving it all yourself. It’s how to make a film orbit around you, rather than drive it.
Now, where my pause comes is largely personal. From moment one, something felt wrong here. Not wrong in the provocative way that Verhoeven is clearly going for, trying to make what could be lightly tinged as a rape revenge comedy. Wrong in the way that perhaps this was ultimately a misguided project, an attempt to tell a story that requires a certain amount of nuance from a perspective that ultimately has none.
In other words, a story about an explicitly female perspective from an exclusively male perspective. There’s a psychological wrongness here, an attempt to shove patriarchal ideals into a supposedly feminist text. There’s a lessening of sympathy, deliberately, for Leblanc, so that perhaps rape does not impact her as hard, that its effect sloughs off you. It goes further by revealing and playing with a dark past, an almost unforgivable possible sin. Perhaps introducing an idea that she in some way is being punished.
It’s undoubtedly provocative, but provocation is delicate as is, and it’s difficult to find in Elle the necessary driving home, the point of all this provocation. Provocation should raise necessary question and lay out its possible answers, not simply raise the questions for the sake of raising them.
In other words, Elle feels to a large degree exploitative. As thought Verhoeven can’t get past the subject to get to the point. Combined with glacial pacing, I left Elle with an extraordinarily bad taste in my mouth, beyond my own issues with seeing a rape reenacted again and again.
I Am Not Your Negro
This is as essential as I ever think viewing gets.
I Am Not Your Negro pulses with absolute and utter vitality, a revolutionary fervor that belies the calm acceptance of what has to be done to change the system. Based on the notes of the final unfinished manuscript by American author and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin, the manuscript and the structure is the story of three murdered men: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers.
But through this, Baldwin is telling the story of America. And as Baldwin puts it “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Peck is juxtaposing what Baldwin saw in his day and the contemporary struggles of Black Lives Matter, the stories of Ferguson and country-wide police brutality, and the progress that still is to be made and what has been done.
But that juxtaposition is so that Peck can facilitate allowing Baldwin to tell one final story. Everything, from the Samuel L. Jackson narration to the structure of the film, is to let Baldwin’s voice speak. This is a film by James Baldwin, dictated to Raoul Peck. Baldwin’s vitality and revolutionary fire show through at every moment, this is his story to tell, cinema a uniquely powerful medium for him.
There’s a confrontation to this film, one that legitimately forced me to question myself and what I did and thought. For that alone, this film is worth it, for the thoughts you’ve never had, the feelings you’ve never quite felt. It’s cinema at its most direct, cinema as the machine that generates empathy and something yet still further, generates action.
OJ: Made In America
2016 was the year of OJ Simpson. As we saw the intersections of race, prejudice, power, and celebrity collide in front of our faces, both American Crime Story and this sprawling epic of a documentary commissioned by ESPN out of its 30 for 30 series seemed to go back to show us that we’ve had this debate for, letting us know what lessons we apparently still have to learn.
Made in America differs from American Crime Story in how far back it pulls from the larger story. If American Crime Story is a drill-down, examining every aspect of the trial from every angle and digging deep down into the relationships, Made in America is a contextual view, providing all the context for why every decision was made, examining it in the broader scope of race in L.A.
It takes a deft hand to make a talking head documentary into something cinematically compelling, so hats off to director Ezra Edelman for doing it. The editing is key here, weaving together source after source of footage into a tightly wound and even tense narrative. The White Bronco chase has so passed into American lore that it still ranks as impressive if you can make that feel fresh or new or exciting.
As for the TV vs. Film debate (which is it?), the answer is that it’s whatever the hell you want it to be, honestly. It aired in multiple episodes on ESPN and that’s how most people consumed it, but it was also put out as a single 8 hour piece in cinemas. If the Oscars are evaluating the 8 hour piece, then that’s a film in my book. If you’re looking at the episodic experience? That’s TV. Why limit if it’s designed, crafted, and released as two separate mediums.