Two fine but very different movies — Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” and Asghar Farad’s “The Salesman” — closed out the competition this weekend for the Palme d’Or in Cannes. And either one could get a major prize.
First, let’s talk about the deliciously evil and perverse “Elle.” Verhoeven, who brought “Basic Instinct” to Cannes in 1992, is back with another tale of a woman in danger who is also dangerous.
This time, it’s the brilliant Isabelle Huppert as Michele, a video game company founder in Paris who is raped by a man in a black ski mask in her luxurious home at the beginning of the film. Michele doesn’t act the way you might think. Once the rapist leaves, she calmly cleans up the broken glass from the floor. Then she takes a hot bath, not crying, just going about cleaning up in a methodical way.
She doesn’t call the police. At first, she doesn’t even tell anyone. She goes to work the next day and pretends nothing happened while giving instructions to her employees about how to build the suspense in a violent video game.
We slowly discover why Michele has an aversion to going to the police, and why she’s so determined to stay in control of life. When she was a child, her father went on a killing spree in Paris, and after the massacre, he came back home and asked his girl to help burn up the family possessions. She did, and as her father was being arrested, she was photographed in front of the fire, with ashes on her face. Ever since, she has been associated with the murders and has fought hard to build a prosperous life.
The rapist has her cell number and starts texting her, and she suspects that the perp might be someone who works for her. But we’re kept guessing.
She has a loser son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who works at a fast-food joint. The husband whom she divorced is named Richard (Charles Berling), and he’s a frustrated writer. Her best friend is Anna (Anne Consigny), who co-founded the game company with Michele. And her next-door neighbors are the stockbroker Patrick (Laruent Lafitte) and his religious wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira).
All of these characters are introduced with skill by Verhoeven, but the movie centers on Huppert’s Michele, who is in every scene.
The movie is full of suspense, irony and, surprisingly, many laugh-out loud moments. Most of these come from Michele’s bluntness about those around her, and her peculiar take on life — that she’s going to live her life in freedom and not be constrained by societal norms.
In no way does the movie suggest that she’s come to terms or is OK with the rape, as some have suggested. Far from it. She plots to figure out who the rapist is, and then she carefully maneuvers the man, who knows that his identity has been discovered. And rather than immediately turn him in to police, she begins a rather unnerving game. It’s not a revenge thriller, necessarily, although you might end up interpreting it that way. But there’s more ambiguity than you might think. And the movie is very French. It’s hard to imagine anyone except, perhaps, Sharon Stone, playing such a role in an American film.
Huppert does so with wry glee. There’s a disturbing glint in her eye, and you come to understand that she’s completely amoral, in an almost scary way. But that’s why the movie is deliciously perverse. Huppert and Verhoeven are a great team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t walk away with the best actress prize at Sunday’s awards ceremony. Her main competition: Ruth Negga of Austin director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” or possibly Kristen Stewart of “Personal Shopper.”
The other late standout in Cannes is Iran’s “The Salesman,” which follows the fate of Rana (Taraneh Aliodoosti) and her husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini). The two work at a local school, and both are starring in a play, Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman.” One day, Rana thinks the person ringing her high-rise bell below is her husband, coming home from practicing the play, and she buzzes the caller in without asking. She starts to shower, but ends up being attacked by an intruder. She hits her head on the bathroom glass and goes unconscious, and neighbors discover her lying on the floor as the intruder runs down the steps.
When Emad gets home, he discovers that his wife is in the hospital, possibly with a concussion. But his wife won’t tell Emad exactly what happened. He suspects the worst, possibly a sexual assault, but his wife refuses to discuss the matter. She’s scared, and she doesn’t want to stay in the apartment any more.
While Rana tries to return to normalcy, her husband becomes obsessed with finding the attacker. It turns out that the man left his keys to his truck, a cellphone and some money behind. And Emad finds the truck and waits for the owner to come back to claim it, planning on a confrontation.
To say much more would give away some key plot points, but the director, whose previous films include “The Past” and “A Separation,” is masterful at building tension between the wife and husband, leading us to wonder where all of this will go.
With the premieres of “Elle” and “The Salesman,” the race for the major prizes on Sunday becomes more complicated. Some think “American Honey,” from British director Andrea Arnold, will score big. Others think Nichols’ “Loving” has a shot at a major prize. Some, including me, think Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” has to be among the contenders. And it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Germany’s Maren Ade become the second woman to win the Palme d’Or, for “Toni Erdmann.” Jane Campion is the only other woman who has won such an honor in Cannes, for “The Piano.”
There are several people, mainly among the European press, who think Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” starring Stewart, will be among the award winners. And it would not be a surprise to see Kleber Mendonca Filho of Brazil win something for his Brazilian tale of a widow fighting a corrupt developer in “Aquarius.” And, no, you can’t rule out the Dardenne brothers, who premiered “The Unknown Girl” and are longtime Cannes favorites.
Sunday should be interesting.
Tonight, the winner of Un Certain Regard, the prestigious sidebar event, will be named.