In a lot of ways writing about current films that I see in the theater is boring. I can’t get (or would rather not illegally get) clips to talk about them so it ends up feeling more like review than what I’m generally after in this blog.
So, for two films that I really really loved from this year – Elle and American Honey – I won’t discuss plot at all and will instead ramble and digress on.
I didn’t see Paul Verhoeven’s Tricked, so it’s been since his fairly elegant 2006 Black Book that I’ve seen a new one from him. A decade. For me, Verhoeven is The 4th Man, Total Recall, and RoboCop. I haven’t seen his earlier Dutch productions.
Isabelle Huppert is always amazing and she plays his title character in Elle in such a frank, no-nonsense way. You get the sense that even when Huppert (not Elle, but the actress) is flustered she’s totally in control of her flusteredness. This approach here gives the film an air of less dire, suspenseful film noir, and more playfulness. I think if you put this in another director’s hand you come away with a thriller. Here, where the identity of Elle’s assailant is revealed with about 30 minutes to go in the film, you come away with something closer to deadpan.
I’m hard-pressed to think of names of world-famous directors who aren’t also intense, or at least unique, visual stylists. I kind of think Verhoeven is one of those people. He’s got a mise-en-scene, but it’s not on-the-nose, and it’s as related to theme and tone – maybe mostly tone – than to color scheme and shot selection.
He’s so often compared to David Cronenberg. I guess both like their suburban lead characters and also their sci-fi. Both tend to have ironic narratives, but Cronenberg is so much more distanced for me. Sometimes that’s through his literal distant camera, his neutral-to-cold mise-en-scene, or his characters who play it close to the vest.
For Verhoeven, much of that is actually opposite. Everything’s played with a smile, but I think he finds things funny, where Cronenberg might just find them ironic.I love both directors, so it’s different strokes for different folks.
In Elle, it’s not only that Huppert plays opposite the typical wounded-animal for this kind of role, but also that Verhoeven surrounds her with all sorts of other frauds. There’s the ultra-religious neighbor with the not-so-religious husband; the young man taking Elle’s mother for a financial ride; the son who can’t hold down a job and whose baby is clearly not his own; etc.
When there’s a holiday dinner with this assortment of people it feels like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Elle revels in that discomfort the same way that Elle does.
There’s something about tonal shifts in here that kind of remind me of a subtler Six-Shooter, Martin McDonagh’s amazingly profane short film. That film jumps from comedy to drama and back again. Elle jumps from thriller to historical drama to satire and back again. I think Verhoeven likes this level of imbalance in his films. It’s so controlled – this isn’t slapstick or poor line readings; it all adds up and comes back around, and Huppert’s Elle frees herself from her past and her current constraints as the situations should get more and more out of control (interesting to note that she effectively kills multiple people in this film).
I’m pretty sure I loved American Honey. I mean, if for no other reason, for the amazingly accurate casting on the bus in the film. Where do you find these people? And how do you get this performances? I can’t even imagine how much improvisation took place during production and how much footage didn’t make the film. It must be immense.
There are a few immediate things of note from American Honey: Andrea Arnold plays full songs multiple time. Full songs. How does this not start to feel like music video? It’s mostly because the people singing them are so into them and so damn interesting. Despite this, the film is too long.
The film is shot in 1.37:1. Maybe because so much takes place in the van and that aspect ratio is more conducive to said space? I can’t really think of another reason. For what it’s worth, I forgot about the aspect ratio about halfway through.
Riley Keough owns this film. She’s electric on-screen. Her wardrobe is hilarious (confederate flag bikini?).
I suppose that the takeaway is the American dream through a British lens…and that American dream is sex, music, money, and pot. But on the other hand, I’m not so sure that American Honey is interested in much of a takeaway aside from realism. There’s the realistic handheld, the clearly spur-of-the-moment performances, the open road, and the (sometimes) plotless plot.
But then there are moments that nearly kill the fourth wall – a sex-scene where you feel the camera operator’s involvement (picking the camera up and literally stepping backwards) throughout. And beautifully tense scenes that feel more like “standard” fiction than anything else (two “dates” that Star goes on).
The lead Star (Sasha Lane) is really good, but there’s little insight into her character. That’s the function of the road movie, I guess – the past is left behind. There’s a gorgeous sequence with some kids (and an awesome Dead Kennedys reference) that recalls her past, but for the most part American Honey is decidedly not nostalgic. That’s not it’s point. The American dream is about forward momentum and Arnold rarely gives her characters time to look back.