I first saw French actress Isabelle Huppert in “The Lacemaker” ( 1977 ). She played a shy, virgin betrayed by her seducer. She ended up in a mental ward. Four decades and with hundreds of films to her credit ( like “Loulou” and “The Piano Teacher”), Huppert has lifted The Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress” out of the hands of Natalie Portman, the doppelgänger for our First Lady, Jackie. Huppert showed genuine surprise at this, as did I.

Accolades aside, Isabelle Huppert does not do meek and mild in “Elle”.  Her Michelle is so in control that she is out of control. She is damaged goods. Her hurt causes her to hurt others, insufferably so. Yet, she is a victim of the past and of the present. We come to understand her, admire her, but never like her.

Cold humor is here as we watch her steam in jealousy, carry her mother’s ashes under her arm, roll her eyes at her son’s ordinariness. She is a survivor, who has been brutally raped, chooses not to report it, and is complicit in its repetition. She soldiers on and we accept all her meanness and self-pleasuring. When her backstory  is revealed to us, we marvel that she did not end up under lock and key.

David Burke’s screenplay is based on Philippe Djian’s novel, “Oh”.  It is almost a satire on the “sexy French”. Fetishes like “crunching”, infidelities too numerous to count, and gigolos a prancing fill the screen. Add the animated gaming  hyped to produce “boners” and the neighborly rapist, ( you will guess this right away), and we have a crazy world. Something that the French portray  zestily well.

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven orchestrates the visceral violence and the subtle absurdity with a crèche rising, a tv mass with Pope Francis, a stud’s hernia belt, and my favorite line: “your background in literature is unsuitable for ( gaming) playability”.I enjoyed the symbolism of the intubated sparrow. I cringed at “the tortured soul’s forgiveness” line,  though I think this maybe a major theme.

This is a French film all the way~ cats included. The mix of genres from mystery thriller to sexual farce to a psychological  disorders’ studyguide will jostle, just as Isabelle  Huppert’s award did me. Huppert is good. Her reserve and icy blankness have  been modeled by actress Jessica Chastain, but I have always admired  Huppert’s  French contemporary, Isabelle Ajani’s more passionate volatility . Affect aside now, I was taken for a ride the French way with “Elle”, and you will be, too.



“Gemma Bovery”

French film rarely disappoints me, and this “reworking” of art mirroring life as life mirroring art is a gem! In a Normandy village near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert penned the novel “Madame Bovary”. In this same village our imaginative baker,Martin Joubert, (Fabrice Lucheni) takes over. His balanced and peaceful life is made dramatic and intense with the coming of new British neighbors, Gemma and Charlie.

The film begins with a flashback of Charles (Jason Flamyng) burning Gemma’s things. We see lingerie,furniture, and magazines hit the flames of a front yard bonfire. The lovely Gemma’s diary is saved by our baker. The backstory of her marriage and the bothersome calls from Charlie’s ex-wife are briefly chronicled. The tear-stained pages are difficult to read,but we learn that Charles wished for a radical new start in the French countryside.

Back to the present we encounter Gus, the baker’s dog, hot in pursuit of Carrington,Gemma’s pooch. This animalistic and humorous symbolism continues throughout the movie. Our baker’s yeasty risings are paired with those of his mongrel’s. Martin tells us that “ten years of sexual tranquility” is up-ended as he watches Gemma smell his loaves and gather cosmos into bouquets. In one scene, Gemma is stung by a bee. Martin is asked to remove her dress and suck out the bee’s venom. Anaphylactic shock has the gorgeous Gemma ( Gemma Arterton) meet yet another admirer. This young law student lives  with his countess mother, and he provides the sexiest scenes.

The twenty-nine-year-old British Arterton is lovely whether exercising, painting or conjugating French verbs. Her up-turned upper lip is photographed in rain-hazed windows and in music-box-like dancing in a cathedral setting. Yet, heels and trench coat out fit her with the tools of seduction. Her printed cotton dresses do the trick,too. Love sick eyes are everywhere, even when her dastardly ex-boyfriend Patrick (Mel Raido) re-emerges to cause more harm. The blond curls and youth of Herve (Niels Schneider), the countess’ s son, only bring about adultery and ugly neck marks in comparison.

But this film is really, Martin’s story. And his tale is a surprising one. Only the French can make a romantic film “romantic” while making fun of romance,too. The French can celebrate life’s tragedies with a joy in life’s craziness. Director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer turned a graphic novel by Posey Simmonds into a refreshing,playful and thoughtful film.

Enjoy Martin’s brief socialist/capitalistic harangue, and his admonishment to his smirking son:” I’d rather you took drugs than talk crap.” Martin’s re-reading of Flaubert’s “….she was waiting for something to happen..” is wonderful and entrancing. Film viewers may rediscover the novel. If you wish to see bread kneaded seductively, beautiful bodies in lust,and a fanciful watcher trying to save the day, see this film as the French “staff of life”. Somehow the French “get it” with cupids and croissants and death and irony. I am joyful that a sequel called “Anna Karenina” may soon follow.