The first thing that happens in Elle is something that’s heard but not seen — the sounds of heavy breathing and bodies in motion, rubbing against each other. It’s almost certainly the sound of a sex scene, but there’s an aggression to it that suggests either exceptionally good sex or really, really bad sex — an act of violence. The smash of breaking glass is inconclusive, and the quick gasps and grunts don’t clarify a thing; divorced from visual context, they are uncommunicative, inconclusive fragments of expression. It’s an unnerving way to stage what is eventually revealed as a horrifying scene — a woman is brutally raped by a masked intruder — and of course Paul Verhoeven knows it. The director’s first major film in 10 years is as sensational a crime drama as you’d expect from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a cutting psychological study anchored by ugly, explicit rape scenes. Its restrained look and feel are a far cry from the gleeful chaos favored by the Verhoeven of the 1970s, the poster boy for Dutch auteurism on the international scene. That filmmaker all but vanished during the director’s stay in Hollywood, only to resurface with the pulpy and absorbing Nazi resistance drama Black Book. But as lurid as Elle is, Verhoeven’s style is resolutely low-key. I suspect he’s deliberately channeling the austere Euro-drama of Michael Haneke, couching his irrepressible mischievousness in the international language of the arthouse. Continue reading
The Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the “little girl” (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn’t Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani’s first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie’s sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby’s pan deriding it as “romantic pornography” was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image–Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer’s cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.