A bracing feature of the just-wrapped New York Film Festival is the dominance of strong women. Either they're filmmakers themselves (Ava du Vernay with the galvanizing fest opener "13th" and Kelly Reichardt with cult favorite "Certain Women"); or they appear onscreen: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone in Reichardt's "Certain Women." Annette Bening in "20th Century Women." Kristen Stewart in "Personal Shopper." Isabelle Huppert in a festival double feature - "Elle" and "Things to Come" - exudes female power in any film she appears in.
The least winning of these heroines is the usually impeccable Annette Bening in "20th Century Women" directed by Mike Mills. It's 1979 in Santa Barbara and Bening, a single mother, lives with her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling, bohemian group house. On the plus side, the film is formally innovative. Mills slices and dices the narrative so it flashes forward, backward and all but tap dances, with the occasional voice-over doing a segue into another character's voice. Mills anchors art film antics to the story of a fraught relationship between mother and child.
I'm guessing Mills chose this strategy as a way to distance himself from what is essentially a film memoir about his own mother. Bening channels her as an exasperating, ditzy woman, a child of the 60s given to over-sharing with her son in such a cringe-worthy manner you wonder: how did this poor kid become Mike Mills?
The most riveting among the fest's Amazons is Isabelle Huppert, who can soon be seen in theaters in "Elle" by Paul Verhoeven, and, if there's any justice, "Things to Come," the stunning new work from Mia Hanson-Love.
Before its arrival here, "Elle" was already raising hackles. In his latest, Paul Verhoeven, never known for delicacy (see his "Basic Instinct" and "Robocop"), has outdone himself. In "Elle" Huppert is violently raped by a mysterious, hooded attacker - and she's kinda into it. Instead of reporting the rape to the police, she segues into take-charge mode, gets herself checked out medically, and strategizes her revenge, and how to unmask and, possibly - mon Dieu! - enjoy this psychopath.
Feminists will holler, of course, claiming only a male filmmaker could dream up such an outrage. But once the smoke settles, it becomes clear that Huppert as an actress is the poster girl for the unflappable woman. Nothing fazes her. Even as a rape victim she refuses the role of victim, and translates the experience into something she can control. Violation simply challenges her to raise her game.
Verhoeven cleverly sets this louche agenda against a porny video games company where Hupper's the CEO. At moments the X-rated games and Huppert's own life blend in a provocative and incendiary mix.
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