Bright Lights Film Journal

Blood’s Up: The 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival

Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon

But even though Jesse (Elle Fanning) is “everything” right now, what she has is fragile: the aura of enchantment so prized by fashion is easily lost. Once she stops looking like a nymph, Jesse could find herself on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. That would put in her in the sorry position of Gigi and Sarah, rival models who are technically perfect but not ethereal, lacking the elusive freshness that makes a star. These two are corpse brides, all waxy features and reanimated beauty, their bones glittering with paint. Will Jesse join the gallery of discarded girls – the way that in Hollywood, Elle Fanning has deposed her own sister Dakota as an object of interest?

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So much black glamour this year: Personal Shopper, The Neon Demon, Elle, Despite the Night, The Handmaiden, all high-concept dramas with a patina of glitz. The festival season was dominated by this kind of eye candy: films with a twisted yet marketable sexuality, contrasting their darkness with pop themes and colors (licorice allsorts, anyone?). As with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon offered the prospect of a typically macho director taking on a predominantly feminine realm: the world of fashion and beauty. Refn has often portrayed the violent struggle needed to maintain a hierarchy – only this time, the dynamic is observed in terms of catty rather than thuggish behavior.

The Neon Demon draws its imagery from the outsize clichés of the fashion industry, where a well-made garment is labeled “genius” or “everything,” or an attractive person “slays.” Fashion ideals are frequently linked to pain and death: cheekbones that could slice glass, fashion x-rays, a body to die for. There seems to be a persistent focus on cutting: models have chiseled features, scraped-back hair, razor-sharp collarbones. By literalizing some of these expressions (“this business eats you alive”), Refn creates a world of ghoulish glamor, in the tradition of Helmut Newton.

As Jesse, the teenage model of the moment, Elle Fanning is a wonderfully self-possessed little ballerina, eyes tilted as if permanently pulled back by a bun. Her untouched looks are “fabulous,” easily eclipsing the sophistication of older girls. With her child’s face and adult body, she discreetly suggests sexuality, wearing airy dresses that never cling too much; Fanning is even more of a dream creature than she was for Sofia Coppola in Somewhere (2010). But even though Jesse is “everything” right now, what she has is fragile: the aura of enchantment so prized by fashion is easily lost. Once she stops looking like a nymph, Jesse could find herself on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. That would put in her in the sorry position of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), rival models who are technically perfect but not ethereal, lacking the elusive freshness that makes a star. These two are corpse brides, all waxy features and reanimated beauty, their bones glittering with paint. Will Jesse join the gallery of discarded girls – the way that in Hollywood, Elle Fanning has deposed her own sister Dakota as an object of interest?

So far, the film sounds like a potboiler – but it isn’t Refn’s style to play up the melodrama. Instead, he takes the kind of plot one might associate with Jacqueline Susann and isolates a few key images, bringing out their color and luminosity – hence the film’s title. There is a trend among this generation of directors and visual artists, exemplified by Refn and Gaspar Noé, to use neon as a signifier for installation art; witness the number of galleries displaying ironically bland messages in colored light. These signs exist only to sell themselves, aggressively flashing while saying nothing in particular. Refn’s work has this kind of affect: bright and inscrutable, yet giving off the prestige of high art. Neon is a major presence in his films, working on multiple levels: as a pop-art reference and as part of the “magical junkyard” aesthetic of his sets, complete with empty swimming pools, rundown motel, and retro stars (Keanu Reeves and Jena Malone).

But most of all, neon is about Refn’s delight in sucking the juice out of narrative, and making it pristine and hi-def. Stylistically, he has more in common with Dan Flavin and James Turrell – or Daft Punk – than any filmmaker, reducing pop to pure color and hard-edge minimalism. Refn shears pulp of its messy edges and slows it right down, letting us soak in the ambience of each frame. In The Neon Demon, the ready-made characters (fairy princess, sleazy motel owner, predatory lesbian) show he has little interest in urgency or motivation: he poses his heartthrobs in successive stills, against blocks of glowing color. A triumph of filmmaking or art direction? Hard to resist, either way.

Personal Shopper takes the luxury and privilege associated with fashion, and compares it with the life of the soul. Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a woman whose life is divided equally between ghosts and shopping. Olivier Assayas, the only director who has decoded Stewart’s unusual presence, uses her resemblance to the young Jodie Foster, giving her a tough wariness and determination. As a result, both of Maureen’s occupations seem plausible: she works as a psychic medium as well as a dogsbody, running errands and selecting outfits for an actress.

Maureen applies the same sensitive intuition to spirits and shopping: there is not the contrast between mystical and commercial values one might expect. Her body performs these dual functions without much contradiction: in each case, she acts as a proxy for another party. Quite casually, she communes with ghosts between instant coffees; the world of fashion is as prone to hauntings as any other.

Given the impersonality of its premise, what is this film really about? In our culture, celebrity assistants occupy a strange, undefined space: they possess a degree of star luster, even as they perform menial tasks. It is also a job that some might see as soulless – which is where the paranormal comes in. As Maureen fingers designer dresses while looking troubled, there is the conceit that even the most generic activities are subject to hidden forces. A PA-cum-psychic is likely to witness many odd juxtapositions – but then again, Assayas suggests, so are the rest of us.

Every scene brings in such astonishing new images and contexts. Maureen’s boyfriend calls her via Skype from Oman, waving his phone around so that she can get a feel for the place. She visits an estate to discover whether it is haunted. She examines a sonogram; she researches a little-known ’60s horror film while trying on clothes. Life is made up of these slices of information, pasted together from different moments in time, yet often viewed on the same screen. Even the dullest social media account fuses a range of tones, genres, disciplines. We can now summon so many unlikely images at a touch – why not a ghost? With the insane amount of intensity allotted to each screen, it’s not so far-fetched.

In Maureen’s case, the split between jobs only highlights the nature of the contrasts in life. An unexpected Skype causes one image to break through another, a temporal disruption that isn’t fully processed. When Maureen texts the word “forbidden,” the phone offers to complete her thought: “fruit”? She hesitates before deciding that the feeling is not fruit-like, though the phone forces her to spend an extra moment defining it. Technology creates these visual and emotional incongruities: getting from one headspace to another is difficult for anyone, let alone a part-time psychic. Our bodies have yet to catch up with these transitions – Maureen has a gaseous sense of identity, uncertain of where possession begins and ends. But in the end, what’s striking is how compatible her two professions are. Both involve being disembodied, at any given moment.

Sinister beauty is an exciting premise for a film, and Joe Cinque’s Consolation has one of the best, based on an actual case. In an Australian college town, a gifted, attractive female student holds a dinner party for friends. Every guest at the table knows she intends to drug and kill her boyfriend that night, but for some reason they go on smiling and making small talk, until it’s too late. It is a plot worthy of Dennis Potter or Claude Chabrol: a monstrous-sounding idea naturalized by everyday decorum. Like Chabrol, director Sotiris Dounoukos is less interested in the motives behind a single act than the social nature of that act: the way it ruptures an existing society, making it intolerable in retrospect. A murder only shows up the unthinking adherence to social codes, the tacit permission surrounding betrayal.

As played by Maggie Naouri, Anu is an exhausting but charismatic young woman. She can be a little slow in reacting to comments – digesting the consequences to her ego – but to most people, that seems like discernment. She has a habit of gazing toward her boyfriend Joe (Jerome Meyer), scanning his face for signs of treachery, yet barely acknowledging the reality of his presence. Anu’s friend and accomplice, Madhavi (Sacha Joseph), appears more level-headed: she has an owlish look of common sense – or is it just short sight? In this group, evasive patterns of eye contact are the norm: no matter what happens, people are determined to look the other way. In any case, Anu and Madhavi have a way of making the unbelievable seem inevitable – neither seems too aroused by the prospect of murder.

Since Anu’s case has been well publicized in the last decade, we know what the outcome will be – but getting there is an excruciating comedy of manners. Everyone at the party seems to be in a trance of good behavior – complimenting the food, acting like the perfect guest. Is there a cunning in this methodical avoidance of reality? What would be the greater crime: acknowledging the elephant in the room or getting mixed up in other people’s “issues”? The boys are particularly nonchalant, shrugging off the disturbance as someone else’s drama. Was Anu such a powerful fantasist that she could alter people’s perceptions? Apparently not: it seems that the major factor here was a fear of inconvenience – the reluctance to break an accepted social contract and pursue unfamiliar action.

A Chabrol film typically shows less contempt for the killer than for the “good Germans” of society, the people who go about calmly minimizing the real, carefully steering around what might be upsetting to hear. Joe Cinque’s Consolation is less pointed than this, but what we do get is a sense of incredulity surrounding reality. The world of events seems to have no impact on this highly educated, multiethnic community (incredibly diverse by Australian media standards – and it only took a murder to get there!). Dounoukos discouraged his actors from exploring background or motivation: he wanted to “force people through the writer’s words” as a way of “destabilizing people who are very advanced socially.”

The film ends with Anu released early on parole. She is more articulate and engaging than ever, analyzing “women’s pathways into crime” as part of her PhD thesis. She seems comfortably distanced from her research, giving no hint she could be implicated in its results. As with the acting process, understanding how Joe died is about forcing large, dramatic events through impassive faces and bodies. There is no other way to connect people with their actions.

Like Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Antonio Campos’ Christine is about the violation of codes through an unthinkable act. In 1974, Florida reporter Christine Chubbuck shot herself during a live TV broadcast. Footage of her suicide, long thought to have been destroyed, still exists, although it has not been released to the public. It is one of the most coveted images in the world, a piece of “snuff” film like no other.

The shock of this incident has to do with its combination of death and the disruption of TV. Reading live news involves negotiating a huge number of tonal shifts, moving gracefully between hard news and human interest, smoothing a range of stories into a coherent voice. One must find a way to display empathy, concern, and humor, all under the guise of a single personality.

As depicted in the film, Chubbuck was the person least equipped for this format. At a minimum, TV journalists need to seem present, plausible, and composed – none of which Chubbuck could manage without phenomenal effort. In an industry obsessed with “relatability,” it was a strain for her to look friendly or normal. Even though there is something manic about the contortions required to sustain the continuity of TV news – to morally editorialize with a frown, then sunnily move on to a lighter story – this is what presenters do to avoid alarming viewers. Chubbuck could not accomplish this; her attempts to appear rational came across as frantic and eerie. Eventually, she killed herself on camera.

It’s a synopsis that needs to be delivered deadpan, to show up the impact of the event and the way it pierced through the conventions of live media. A televised suicide is shocking and stimulating, even in the retelling: it might be seen as a daring, tasteless prank in the style of Andy Kaufman. Chubbuck was someone who struggled to make herself register onscreen – she was a naturally inscrutable person who needed to hurl each gesture towards the camera. She looked stiff and strange when she was “natural”; if she seemed warm and approachable, she was probably acting. Rebecca Hall plays her as helplessly inappropriate in social situations, needing to plan every smile, never quite getting the desired response. Ironically, Chubbuck’s suicide was the one moment she played convincingly: a final black joke about “bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color.” Her death is one of the few raw acts to have broken through the controlled flow of TV.

Even before the term “humblebrag” was coined, it was clear that Hong Song-soo was an expert in flagrant modesty. No one knows more about the place of ego in conversation: the art of espousing “universal” views that flatter one’s self-interest, or spontaneously liking someone who happens to be a fan of your work. Right Now, Wrong Then is about a director determined to wear his fame lightly – as long as everyone recognizes it. When receiving praise, Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) looks surprised and asks “Me?,” with the glow of a blushing debutante. During his encounters with women, he has a habit of “incidentally” referring to his work and reputation.

At the start of the film, Chun-su decides not to pursue a tempting girl – but another one lurks at the corner of his eye. This is Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee, as ravishing as she was in The Handmaiden), a young painter who emanates warmth, with her habit of nuzzling into the fur of her coat. In an effort to win her, Chun-su makes a series of passes that would never work for a non-celebrity. He represents himself as an artistic fellow traveler who identifies with her process, making huge generalizations about creativity (although these “aesthetic” responses are more to her face than her work). Rote questions are asked to buy time, and there is a lot of wittering about beverages and their quality (apt, if you know café culture in South Korea). Each person holds the balance of power in turn – she as a potential conquest, he as a filmmaker of renown. We watch the clumsily emotional gestures of the man (he’s “wet,” as the British would say) versus the quiet containment of the woman. As Min-hee’s interest grows, Chun-su’s self-image inflates, at which point we can only wait for its puncturing. He relishes the idea of buying dinner for a beautiful, lonely woman. How easily the tables are turned – Min-hee pays for the meal and turns out to have multiple friends, so Chun-su’s whole evening is soured. Now self-esteem hangs by a thread.

The idea that composure can be ruined by the smallest gestures leads us into the film’s second half, subtitled “Right Then, Wrong Now.” We replay the first story, but with a few adjustments in camera placement, timing, and dialogue. If so much of relationships is generic, even a slight shift of circumstance should produce an entirely different outcome. This is an experiment in rhythm as much as anything else: like playing two variations on a theme, the second one syncopated. Let’s skip a beat, play one note off, and see how everything changes.

Unavoidably, we end up playing “spot the difference” between the two halves, seeing how tiny alterations provoke seismic changes. As in a game of chess, if one player makes a tentative opening move, then the other is likely to respond more aggressively. With the removal of a game piece here and there, the entire structure of the relationship changes. In the second version, Hee-jung doesn’t get to stretch and show off the beautiful extension of her neck – which in turn prompts less enthusiasm from Chun-su. Revised camera angles mean that people hold different degrees of attraction for us. As a consequence, perceptions are skewed: the second time Chun-su asks Hee-jung to dinner, it’s a less inviting prospect – the sashimi looks less succulent and he takes note of its cost.

This is a way of feeding different variables into the “system” that is Hong’s cinema: observing the shift of emotions under certain conditions (the way Eric Rohmer studied people at specific times of day and season). Even conversational pleasantries, banal as they are, decisively shape the course of events. Failure to agree on a minor point leads to a resentment that surfaces later. One off-hand gesture throws the game out of whack, forcing a series of reactive moves. At that point, a new pattern of play is needed to regain equilibrium – or in Hong’s case, a stalemate.

The characters in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier remind us of Hong Sang-soo’s in that they are obsessed with rhetorical honor: all the virtues and values one would allegedly uphold in another’s position. Six Greek men on a fishing trip decide to grade one other according to classical standards of achievement. How well do they measure up to the great heroic archetypes: lover, thinker, fighter, poet, athlete? The way to find out is to perform a series of tasks that require ostentatious heavy lifting. As in Hong, there is a lot of self-protective affirmation about “being your best,” of the kind we see in advertisements for men’s cosmetics and in magazines like Esquire. Unfortunately, the camera will not rise to the epic movements desired by the characters: it sits around taking wan, flat-looking footage of the contest.

This is Will Ferrell territory, depicting the drive for gravitas as seen in Anchorman 2 (2004) and Daddy’s Home (2015). The subject of Ferrell’s films with Adam McKay is the arbitrary nature of authority: the way that any deep voice attached to a vaguely patrician name is assumed to possess integrity. It is easy for certain men to project an aura of blue-chip respectability that overrides the most senseless actions. But McKay, like Tsangari, makes the pursuit of prestige ridiculous – the focus on tangible measures of success only creates a continuous game of one-upmanship.

There is a particular type of website that has sprung up in the last decade, dedicating to identifying the traits of the alpha male: how an ideal model stands, looks, and speaks; how good he is at trolling women or shaming betas. Generally, this is about applying a fascistic code to the body: rejecting poses that are heavy or sluggish in favor of those that are clean, economical, and forceful. Vocal tones that imply weakness must be replaced with uprightness and certainty, especially when chasing the prize of a woman’s desire. These are the kinds of tests that the men in Chevalier undergo to prove their rigor: there must be no hint of flabbiness, mental or physical (one of the older guys is subject to pitying close-ups of loose flesh).

This film is unusual in that it marginalizes certain behavior as the kind of stuff men get up to, regarding it with the same polite indifference that the epic has traditionally reserved for the domestic. Chevalier is not critical of masculine activity, just uncomprehending of its use or value: men’s interests are seen as theoretically important but tiresome. You can imagine the film being shot by a tolerantly condescending woman, a Mae West or Marlene Dietrich who amuses herself watching a bunch of guys make a to-do over nothing. As the camera coolly observes action and rippling muscles, one is reminded that West adored men without being particularly aware of anything they do: they were simply assumed to have manly chores, the way that each of the Village People had token professions.

If the film does have a connection to Greek mythology, it is in portraying the futility of human effort as viewed from above. The camera does not understand the games of mortals, finding their rules abstract and trivial, if entertaining. Chevalier might be filmed from the perspective of an Aphrodite or Athena: a viewer from another world, momentarily diverted by exotica.

Jerry Lewis is the king of screwball takes on gender: his films creatively misunderstand the roles available to the sexes. A retrospective of Lewis’ directorial work was a gutsy choice for MIFF, given the ambivalence with which he is regarded in the English-speaking world, let alone the feminist community. But I personally find Lewis too bizarre to be offensive: when it comes to women, his characters are frankly puzzled rather than dismissive. Lewis seems to regard women the way that the director of Chevalier perceives men: as fantastic creatures, too bemusing to make judgments about.

The notorious Three on a Couch (1965) is much less of a screed than I expected. Its premise sounds intriguingly toxic: three man-haters must be cured of their tendencies so that their psychiatrist (Janet Leigh) is free to travel to Paris with her boyfriend (Lewis). One might suppose these women would be seen as poisonous harpies, nutjobs fixated on their issues with men. Instead, all three are glamorous and good-natured (shocking by today’s standards), if somewhat indistinguishable. As in The Ladies’ Man (1961), Lewis’ character is perplexed by this new generation of self-possessed dollybirds, with their Barbie lashes and kitten noses, privy to a secret world of social forms. Elizabeth Acord (Leigh) represents a twist: she is both sexy and nurturing, the fetching lady doctor who appears in comedies of this period (see Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl, 1964).

At Dr. Acord’s office, we see a parade of ’60s personality types: the modern world is an epidemic of “cases,” textbook examples of infantile fixation or projection. All her clients have extreme versions of disturbance, from an addiction to handstands to sucking on dummies. Therefore mental illness is seen as colorful and performative – patients are bananas or bonkers rather than clinically insane, and female “nutjobs” tend to be charming kooks. This extends to the chatty male obstetrician (James Best), who seems to have psychology confused with homeopathy: for Acord’s patients, he claims that “if man is the cause, man is the cure.”

To my mind, this is less about misogyny than a bewilderment at the permutations of modern life, where people get mixed up in each other’s brains and bodies. In this fashionably neurotic society, every pause is laden with Freudian meaning. As we enter the ’60s, directors such as Lewis, Richard Quine and Jacques Tati are stunned (and stimulated) by all the shiny new forms we have to play with: the clothes, gadgets, pop psychology, all the Mondrian colors and swinging style we’re supposed to get with. For Lewis, a smartly dressed woman is like some impossibly chic chair or lamp – an utterly sealed, marvelous object, beyond his comprehension.

We often see this theme of women as futurism in Lewis, especially in The Ladies’ Man, which features a whole houseful of girls in ready-matched outfits, all prodigies in some obscure discipline, stepping to the same rhythms (which Lewis can never get the hang of). Each is a savvy, self-contained model of living: a marvel of dimples, sweaters, hobbies, and sexual liberation, intimidating to any outsider, male or female (Camille Paglia has described the era as a tyranny of “blond oppressors”). Watching Lewis’ women walk is like seeing a procession of minimalist furniture in Tati – reflecting an ambivalence about modernity as much as femininity.

Philippe Grandrieux has a very distinctive way of picturing bodies. In Despite the Night, we feel the monumental weight of each human form: the bulge of joints and nerves, the strain of blood under skin, observed with the level of detail we’d expect from a painter or still photographer. In Grandrieux, each body must be realized: a drawn-out process that requires an intense level of sketching and sculpting by the camera. The film investigates every crease of a sagging old man, the impact of a stud through a delicate nipple, a yellow ear that hangs at the side of the head. Bodies seem to reside in a weightless black space, potentially a neutral studio background; instead of Grandrieux’s usual thudding soundtrack, silence holds up the figures onscreen.

It would be useless to describe this film in terms of actions or events: what matters is the way the bodies receive the camera. Each “character” comes to us as a blur of features, the Caravaggesque lighting showing up every bone and hollow. That means our attention favors Hélène (Ariane Labed), who has the ultra-lean face of the young Charlotte Rampling; her absolutely spare beauty makes freshness redundant. We are attuned to her bodily changes: the way she turns pink and white when gripped (she is part of a hard-core sex ring), the skin going from matte to clammy. As is typical for Grandrieux, the male lead is much less striking, a blond musician named Lenz (Kristian Marr) with a blunt face and lank body. However, his smudged Britpop look contrasts with Hélène’s skeletal perfection: her lines seem to command his movements. Thirdly, there is Lena (Roxane Mesquida), a singer and rival for Lenz’s affections. Although she is undeniably pretty, what’s noticeable is the way she is made up and dressed: the cold touch of leather against her skin, the glittery dresses and frosted eyeshadow implying a temperature change.

Every character is a parcel of heat-seeking motion, its “personality” a matter of the way it hangs across the coordinates of the screen. Bodies are comforted by self-cleaning and sleep, then infused with bravado as they stalk the streets as part of a group. Grandrieux observes them through translucencies of candlelight and milky water, turning bone-white under sudden light. The three leads are surrounded by the kind of father-associated darkness that swallowed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, a web of intrigue controlled by Lena’s malevolent dad (Johan Leysen). The nature of his operations is never made clear, but ultimately, power resides in his ability to move people in and out of the shadows, where brutal violence occurs.

The satisfaction or outrage we get from a rape-revenge film depends on where its heat is located. Where is the full-blooded excitement of the film: in the initial rape, or the train of retribution that follows? Is the rape only a pretext for vengeance, or vice versa? Paul Verhoeven’s Elle upsets our expectations, in that the opening assault on Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is ice-cold. As her masked attacker leaves, Michèle’s exposed breast sits among similarly shaped cups, like a shattered still life; viewed through the indifferent eyes of a cat, the scene is dry, nearly emotionless. But if we know anything about Verhoeven, the lack of affect tends to be a trap: Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Black Book (2006) are key works of dicey sexual politics, “empowering” in a problematic way. When Verhoeven stages violence, it’s with a clinical, deliberate air: Huppert is ideally cast as a woman who takes time over her very considered revenge.

Michèle is the head of a Paris video game company. An expert on thrill-seeking tendencies and the male gaze, she encourages her programmers to amp up the sex and horror, knowing that the audience requires both blood and “boner moments” as a pay-off. How would a woman so versed in violence and catharsis respond to being attacked?

As the daughter of a convicted killer, Michèle has lived with conflicted feelings since childhood, and she is aware that historical crimes tend to be revisited on women’s bodies. After completing the necessary medical tests (there is the sense of blood as a hot, toxic substance, given all the talk of HIV and STDs), she begins to try out a range of behaviors, previously unseen in movie depictions of rape victims.

The unshockable woman goes about her business and her relationships with family, lovers, and friends. She continues to toy with danger – at times, she dispenses cruelty like a Haneke heroine, calmly stealing her neighbor from his pretty, straight-edge wife. She lives with both power (controlling the impulses of a generation of adolescents) and vulnerability – after all, who can you trust when every suitor is a potential stalker? In a sense, the film is about unresolved complexity, showing us a victim who is turned on by risk and provocation as much as the desire for justice. Verhoeven has always explored “inappropriate” attraction; every relationship in this film – gigolo, dupe, mistress, fan, employee – is unbalanced by power and secrecy.

These loaded games of betrayal make Elle a sequel of sorts to Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness (2013), in which Huppert played a woman determined to turn “weakness” into a stylized game of S&M. In Elle, when Michèle uncovers the identity of her rapist, she decides to wait and reflect before she acts. In doing so, she flusters the man, mastering him psychologically. It is only a temporary triumph, unequal to the violation she has experienced. But given that her work combines art, sadism, and pornography, it’s not surprising that Michèle has unusual tastes when it comes to revenge. As a result, the final scene is a black joke. Couldn’t you just die?