In the movies, if not so much in life, 2016 has turned out to be a very good year for the ladies. While the Best Actor race is suffering from a dearth of truly exciting performances in 2016, the Best Actress race is stacked. You could fill the Best Actress category twice before you come across five male performances that have the fire and finesse displayed by the women this year. The clear frontrunners are Natalie Portman in Jackie and Emma Stone in La La Land, with Annette Bening’s work in 20th Century Women also expected to pick up a nod. That leaves two slots open to a wide swath of women, from Amy Adams in Arrival to Ruth Negga in Loving — both deserving, though perhaps not showy enough to stand out this year.
First and foremost, I’m betting on an appearance from Isabelle Huppert. French-language performances aren’t unheard of in the big race — Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Amour, while Marion Cotillard was nominated for Two Days, One Night and won for La Vie En Rose. Huppert is a highly respected international actress giving a hell of a performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, fearlessly commanding a difficult role that many actresses would be hesitant to play.
Elle‘s opening scene certainly grabs out attention, beginning the film with a startling act of sexual violence, then immediately bucking our expectations of what will happen after. Huppert’s Michèle doesn’t call the police, nor have a nervous breakdown, nor call a friend for support. She goes about her routine, remaining completely composed. It’s not that she has no reaction at all — she takes relatively small precautions against further intrusion, and eventually she does get around to talking about what’s happened. But mostly, she goes to work, sees her family, lives her life, as usual.
Gradually, we learn that this is because Michèle’s life has already been, shall we say, unconventional, so there’s nothing conventional in her response to a violent sexual crime — or anything else, really. Michèle is a fascinating character, though not necessarily a woman many will find endearing. She’s suffered a lot in her life and continues to suffer, though she does so beneath an icy, often provocative facade. A few characters voice what Michèle “should” do after being attacked in her home, probably the same things the audience would suggest. But Michèle has her reasons for not heeding this advice. On the surface, at least, Elle is most fascinated with Michèle’s relationships with the many men in her life. One of these is a masked rapist we meet in the opening scene. Neither we nor Michèle know his identity, but nearly every man in her life exhibits some behavior that makes us think: it could be him. These men include Michèle’s ex, Richard, who appears to be one of the gentler and more considerate men in her life, until we learn that the reason for their split is that he hit her; Robert, a married man Michèle is having an affair with; Patrick, Michèle’s married neighbor, whom she develops an attraction to; Kurt, an employee of Michèle’s, who undermined her authority at every turn; and Vincent, her son, who takes advantage of his mother’s money but fails to heed her advice about Josie, the emotionally unstable mother of his child. (Or, maybe, not his child.)
The canny thing about Elle is that each of these men violate Michèle in some way over the course of the movie, with varying degrees of severity. Michèle’s married paramour carelessly uses her for sex, not caring whether she’s on her period or injured as long as he gets off. Michèle’s son is merely selfish, entitled, and oblivious, though there are some red flags in his relationship with Josie that could trigger not-so-nice behavior down the line; still, given all his mother’s been through, it wouldn’t kill Vincent to consider her feelings for a change. Michèle’s neighbor Patrick enjoys subtle flirtation with her right under the nose of his religious Catholic wife. Michèle’s employees at the video game company she co-founded display misogynistic behavior. Richard has a video game idea he pesters Michèle about developing at her company, even though she frequently tells him no. And then there’s the rapist. These men all use Michèle for some form of selfish gratification; as presented in Elle, the rape is just one more violation to add to the list, not necessarily better or worse than the rest. Casting a shadow over all of this is Michèle’s father, who is spoken of more than seen, a depraved figure who violated Michèle first and most severely. (But not in the way you may think.) The consequence of his actions have darkly colored Michèle’s present life. In a way, everything that happens her is because of him.Elle is not the kind of movie to make a blanket statement about the ways men treat women, however; nor vice versa. It’s certainly not as overt as you might expect from Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, which dealt with sexuality and sexual violence in ways that could never be accused of being too subtle. Elle is the anti-Showgirls, all subtext and nuance. It would be easy to portray Michèle as a mere victim of male violence coming at her from every angle, the way she’d be portrayed in a Lars Von Trier movie. But in Verhoeven’s film, Michèle is no innocent. She, too, inflicts violence — emotional violence — upon other women, specifically.Michèle’s dalliances with married men may or may not be purposeful in their aggression toward their wives; she seems to take some pleasure in the subterfuge, at the very least. Michèle is also frequently antagonistic toward her mother, who’s spending her twilight years (and her money) on young hunks and plastic surgery. (As we learn later, this woman has also been through a lot. Maybe Michèle should cut her some of the slack they both deserve.) Michèle certainly disapproves of her son’s shrill baby mama, Josie, and makes no effort to keep quiet about it. She makes a point of hunting down her ex’s new, young girlfriend, going so far as to invent a holiday party just so she can spend more time with the girl (and slip a toothpick into her meal). Michèle isn’t necessarily a cruel person, but whether intentional or not, her behavior is reckless enough to cause harm.
In a way, Elle is as much about female relationships as it is the dynamic between men and women, even if the latter bears the brunt of the dramatic weight. Despite living through far more than her share of trauma, Michèle is no ordinary victim. Most films portray victims of rape in either one of two ways: as a helpless damsel in need of rescue by an avenging (male) angel, or as a femme fatale in a rape-revenge thriller. Elle does not go very far down either path, because Michèle is no archetype. She’s a flesh-and-blood woman who enjoys sex and seduction — yes, even after being raped.
Michèle is not a different person after this act of sexual violence. Shockingly, we get the sense that nothing for her has changed at all. By the time we meet her, Michèle has faced enough adversity and trauma for one lifetime; a masked man may be able to overpower her physically, but he has little control over the emotions and mental state of a woman who has been so deeply traumatized. Elle is interested in far more than the repercussions of rape; in some ways, it is a classic whodunit mystery, but it also takes plenty of time to explore the kinds of unconventional relationships you’d only find in a French drama.In so many ways, Elle is a clever, under-the-radar drama that only occasionally veers into lurid erotic thriller territory, eschewing most of its broader trappings. Then again, the film does open on a close-up of a cat, and coming from the man who gave us Elizabeth Berkeley licking a stripper pole and Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs just so, that inescapable euphemism may not be an accident. To say that the film is about “pussy power” would be reductive; all Elle does is ask us not to make assumptions, not to put these women in any particular box. Rape has been used time and time again to render female characters either helpless or superhuman, with few options in between. Elle reminds us that a woman who has been raped is still a person with agency. She still has a life to live and choices to make. In its own shrewd way, Elle reclaims the power that (mostly male) filmmakers have stripped from women in so many movies. It’s not that Michèle’s rape has no consequence — but it doesn’t define her, either. Nor does it determine the direction this story is headed.
Elle is not an American movie, thus no coincidence with American politics can be looked at too deeply. But at a time when sexual assault against women is, well, both very much an issue and not an issue at all in this country, it is refreshing to see a film that treats rape as more than just the end-all be-all for a female character, centering on a heroine who refuses to wear the scarlet letter society would prefer to brand her with. Elle sets up most of the typical rape-revenge thriller trappings, then sends the next two hours handily avoiding them.
Without giving anything away, Elle‘s final scene is not at all what we’d expect from a movie set up like this, and I suppose there’s plenty of room for interpretation. My takeaway is that women can find solace in each other against the mad, sometimes violent world of men. Elle is a strikingly mature piece of work — and feminism — coming from a filmmaker like Verhoeven, one that should be dissected and discussed for years to come. After haunting spring’s Louder Than Bombs with her portrayal of a doomed photojournalist and secretive mother, Huppert stars in a third notable 2016 release, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come. To say Things To Come is a gentler film than Verhoeven’s is practically a joke — Hansen-Løve is known for understated French dramas like last year’s Eden, and Verhoeven is known for RoboCop and Starship Troopers.
In Things To Come, Huppert is Nathalie, a philosophy teacher who finds some central relationships in her life transforming at an unexpected time. Nathalie’s anxious mother is growing increasingly unable to take care of herself, and her husband has been philandering and fallen in love. At the same time, a former pupil returns to Nathalie and challenges her ideals. Things To Come is short on plot movements, preferring to stew in the finely drawn details of Nathalie’s daily life. It’s about a woman who finds herself suddenly freer than she ever expected or even wanted to be; what she chooses to let go of, and what she keeps.
If there’s any justice in this world, Huppert will nab one of the Best Actress slots, and if we assume Stone and Portman are locks, then that’s two to split between Bening, Negga, Adams… or someone else. Of course, we can never underestimate the power of Meryl Streep, who gets nominated more often than not these days, even in films of middling quality. (Hell, she won for The Iron Lady, one of the worst films she’s ever starred in.) In Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep is once again a songbird, but unlike her turn in Mamma Mia, she sounds pretty wretched. That’s because she plays a wealthy old lady who has the cash and influence to get herself on stage, no matter how many eardrums she shatters in the process. Streep amuses in the role, and Simon Helberg steals scenes as the pained pianist who accompanies her along the way, but this may be a year in which Academy voters decide there’s too much good work out there to give Streep a cursory nod once more.
One last performer who can’t be totally discounted is Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane, playing the titular lobbyist in John Madden’s glossy drama about the dicey issue of gun control in America. Chastain’s Elizabeth Sloane has a reputation throughout Washington for her ruthless cunning; she is approached by the leader of an NRA-like group to help guns appear “friendlier” to female voters. Sloane doesn’t take a liking to this tact, and soon is offered a position under Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the “boutique” lobbyist playing for the other side. Sloane’s questionable ethics cause alarm for her own team, which includes Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a survivor of a school shooting. It’s up to Sloane and her hard-working teammates to convince a number of congressmen to vote for a bill that would sensibly require background checks on firearms sold in the United States. Sloane and her new team go up against Sloane’s former employers, played by Sam Waterston, Allison Pill, and Michael Stuhlbarg, with the usual what-goes-up-must-come-down tension between antagonists who are constantly gaming each other. Sloane plays hardball and makes several new enemies over the course of the film’s running time, but she’s never less than fascinating to watch.
Miss Sloane is a slick studio drama of the “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” variety, with the notable twist that the prickly but brilliant Sloane is allowed to be flawed in ways that males in comparable films have been for years. Not only is she tough-as-nails and willing to break the law and betray her colleagues’ trust, but she’s also got a pill-popping addiction and partakes in the occasional discrete hunky escort on the side. Chastain plays a slightly more fleshed out version of the tenacious, workaholic CIA agent she portrayed so superbly in Zero Dark Thirty. Here, she’s a shade darker, with a glossier veneer, though at the core she’s still a woman willing to make moral compromises for the good of her country — and one who’s not afraid to stand up to the men who wish she’d behave more like a lady.
While some folks head to movies like La La Land for escapism in the dark, waning days of 2016, I prefer my escapism to be a bit more targeted, and Miss Sloane delivered in spades on that front. Many of its plot machinations are either predictable or preposterous, with a script that’s a little too didactic and pleased with itself to register as high art. (Calling it “liberal propaganda” wouldn’t be entirely unjust.) But Madden’s film hits a nice sweet spot for anyone feeling especially burned by American politics in 2016. In Miss Sloane, we watch an icy, imperfect woman go up against Washington’s most corrupt players, fighting for one of the most divisive issues in the nation. Earlier this year, Miss Sloane would have played as highly implausible; in December 2016, it’s utter fantasy, but one I welcomed eagerly. Call me crazy, but few movies lately have put such a smile on my face.Alas, despite being as good as she’s ever been, Chastain has only the slightest of shots at an Oscar nod, given the film’s unfortunate box office performance. (For Miss Sloane‘s intended audience, watching a powerful woman fight for a liberal cause in Washington probably feels like a slap in the face right about now.) An actress with even less of a shot is Krisha Fairchild, the star of a film called Krisha, in which she plays a character named Krisha — and no, that isn’t a coincidence.
Krisha was shot in nine days in a single location, at filmmaker Trey Edward Shults’ family’s home in Texas. Most characters are played by his family members, who are non-professional actors, and the film was 30% improvised on a tiny budget. Shults stars as a major character himself.
Sound like an amateur hour recipe for disaster? Yep! Miraculously, though, Krisha is a masterful piece of filmmaking, telling the story of an addict coming home for Thanksgiving, determined to make things right with the family she’s wronged so many times. This alone is not a terribly original premise, and for a while, it’s unclear just what kind of movie Krisha is. The most predictable route would be a heartwarming dramedy in which Krisha makes her amends slowly but surely, all in time for a happy family meal to fade out on. But Krisha isn’t that movie.
Parts of Krisha are shot like a horror movie, which is perfectly appropriate for this character’s fragile state of mind (and sobriety). There are fragments of moments with all of the large supporting cast, so that we get to know them as a family just as we might if we were a surprise guest at Thanksgiving dinner. Few of the characters get much solo screen time, yet every performance feels lived in. This is largely because many of them are playing versions of themselves, but it’s amazing how good they are for non-actors. Billie Fairchild, as Krisha’s mother, has Alzheimer’s in real life and was not entirely aware that she was in a film, yet manages to tug heartstrings on multiple occasions.Krisha Fairchild, on the other hand, is a professional actress, in addition to being Shults’ aunt. In the film, she plays Trey’s biological mother, who abandoned her child to relatives while she grappled with her addiction. Her performance is riveting from moment one, and only gets better as the film unfolds. The film isn’t really a story about addiction; we get the sense that Krisha’s substance abuse is more a symptom of some larger problem. Something isn’t right, and hasn’t been for some time.
At first glance, some elements of Krisha may feel haphazard, but the narrative is carefully constructed, giving us just enough time with each family member to buy in to the dynamic between these characters without spending too much time with any one. A young couple in the family has a newborn baby, which resonates as we learn that Krisha is also a mother — or was, until her addiction took precedent over her duty to her son. There’s no remedy for some maladies, and that might include whatever is is that Krisha suffers from. Her family is willing to give her one last chance, but can Krisha give herself a break?
Krisha won the Audience and Grand Jury Prizes at South By Southwest and picked up several other prizes since. It is too small a film to register for the Academy, though Fairchild’s commanding performance certainly belongs alongside Stone, Portman, Bening, and Huppert in the big race.