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Ebertfest 2017: "Hysteria," "The Handmaiden," "Elle"

Three of our selections at Ebertfest 2017 explored female sexuality with an uninhibited frankness and intelligence that left our audience with plenty to discuss. Considering her busy weeks ahead at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a great honor to have Isabelle Huppert join us in Champaign, Illinois, for a screening of her Oscar-nominated performance in Paul Verhoeven's "Elle." Her Q&A with Sony Pictures Classics co-founder and co-president Michael Barker can be found later in this post.

The following review of "Hysteria" written by Roger Ebert was published in the catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 20th with director Tanya Wexler and actor Hugh Dancy in attendance. Here is the introduction to the film, followed by the Q&A posted after the review.

“First, do no harm,” the Hippocratic Oath admonishes doctors. By this standard, Dr. Robert Dalrymple must have been one of the few practitioners of the Victorian era with a sterling record. He knew no more than most other doctors of his time and was treating a condition that didn't exist, female hysteria. But give the doctor his due. His treatments consisted of inducing orgasms in his patients, and he didn't lose a one. In fact, his waiting room was usually jammed.

Tanya Wexler's quietly saucy “Hysteria” takes place in London at a time when medical authorities didn't know the word for or the concept of “orgasm,” and apparently many women never experienced them. His treatments consisted of modestly covering a patient's private regions with a little tent, reaching delicately beneath it and using digital stimulation to effect a cure. How he hit upon this method must be attributed to sheer genius.

We meet an ambitious young doctor named Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who has become nearly unemployable because of his habit of questioning the orthodoxy of the time. Desperate for work, he applies at the household of Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who has more patients than he can handle. This also introduces him to the Dalrymple daughters, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a social activist, and the dutiful Emily (Felicity Jones), a student of phrenology who’s also searching for a husband. Charlotte flatly rejects her father’s theories as crackpot and his treatments as suspect, but uses family money to support her work among the London poor. Mortimer is intended to marry one daughter and falls in love with the other.

Curing hysteria is not a practice without its drawbacks, and Mortimer treats his patients with such dedication that he comes down with what was not then known as carpal tunnel syndrome. In despair, he consults his droll and dubious friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), who happens to be toying with an electrically powered duster. They try it on Mortimer’s afflicted area, a light bulb illuminates over Mortimer’s head, and the vibrator is invented.

This milestone in human progress has never received the respect it deserves, and yet vibrators have been selling widely and well ever since, even in the early Sears catalogs. They were advertised with such euphemisms as “personal massagers” for aches and pains, although why most of them had phallic shapes was wisely left unexplained.

One of the pleasures of Wexler’s third feature is how elegantly it sets its story in the period. The costumes, the sets, the locations and the behavior are all flawless, and the British characters in the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer are all masters of never quite saying what they mean. Of course the Dalrymple practice is quite ethical, because there is no such thing as a female having pleasure from sex; the exact nature of the complaint being treated is sometimes described as “wandering uterus,” which for some reason makes me think of an albatross around its neck.

The film is based on fact. (“Really,” an opening title assures us.) The performances are spot on, and I especially like the spunky Gyllenhaal, who with this film and the underrated “Secretary” (2002), has built up a nice sideline in sexual exploration. The subject of vibrators has been under discussion after the publication of “The Technology of Orgasm” by Rachel Maines, and it was Wexler’s inspiration to see that the invention was all the more remarkable since it developed at a time when it treated a condition that officially didn’t exist. That was in contrast with many then-contemporary medical treatments, which didn’t treat conditions that officially did exist.

Ebertfest 2017, Day 2: No Transition Without Representation by Matt Fagerholm

Ebertfest appearance ‘a big personal first’ for ‘Hysteria’ director by Melissa Merli

Dancy on "Hysteria" and More by Melissa Merli

Video: 35mm at Ebertfest 2017 by The Editors

The following review of "The Handmaiden" written by Matt Zoller Seitz was published in the catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 20th. Here is the introduction to the film, followed by the Q&A posted after the review.

Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a love story, revenge thriller and puzzle film set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. It is voluptuously beautiful, frankly sexual, occasionally perverse and horrifically violent. At times its very existence feels inexplicable. And yet all of its disparate pieces are assembled with such care, and the characters written and acted with such psychological acuity, that you rarely feel as if the writer-director is rubbing the audience’s nose in excess of one kind or another. This is a film made by an artist at the peak of his powers: Park, a South Korean director who started out as a critic, has many great or near-great genre films, including “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Lady Vengeance” and “Thirst,” but this one is so intricate yet light-footed that it feels like the summation of his career to date.

It’s also as inspiring an example of East-West cross-pollination as cinema has given us, on par with Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Dashiell Hammett in its ability to submerge a respected source while keeping its outlines visible. The plot faintly evokes many Gothic thrillers (chiefly "Rebecca," "Jane Eyre" and "Gaslight") and quite a few examples of film noir as well; Park’s source is Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith,” a 2002 novel set in Dickensian England that was previously made as a 2005 British miniseries. The result seems at once specifically English, specifically Korean and not of this astral plane; like Park’s best work, it’s an expressionistic, at times surreal movie that skates along the knife-edge of dreams. Every frame pulses with life, sometimes with blood.

The script tells of a spirited female pickpocket named Sooki, actually named Tamako ( Kim Tae-ri), who gets a job as a handmaiden at the estate of a rich old book collector (Lee Yong-nyeo), serving him and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of his late wife; she gets pulled into a scheme by a fake count who wants to marry the niece and have her committed to an asylum so that he can claim her fortune; the book collector, the fake count’s mentor, has more or less the same plan in mind. “Frankly, I’m not that interested in money itself,” says the fake count, who was raised by a Korean fisherman but claims to be Japanese and calls himself Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). “What I desire is—how shall I put it?—the manner of ordering wine without looking at the price.”

The plan is fiendishly complicated, but it grows thornier still when Sooki/Tamako starts falling in love with her target. Their blossoming affair is tenderly observed—a startlingly blunt sex scene is delayed until fairly deep into the film, and preceded by many scenes that pivot upon subtle glances, overheard remarks and moments where one woman rushes to the other’s defense. The fake count is handsome and can be dashing at times—Ha looks so at home in a tuxedo that you could imagine him wearing it to a supermarket—but he’s also a “pig” who seems to revel in his piggishness, and his intended target sees through him immediately. When he calls her “mesmerizing” over a tense dinner, she replies, “Men use the word ‘mesmerizing’ when they wish to touch a lady’s breasts.” He’s upfront about his utter cyncism and lack of affection for Lady Hideko, a crushed flower of a woman who was raised from girlhood as a virtual prisoner by the book collector after—well, let’s just call it a tragedy, because now we’re at the point in this review where describing any specific moment or scene from “The Handmaiden” in detail would rob readers of one of the great pleasures of watching a densely plotted, elegantly executed motion picture: having no idea of what’s about to happen next, yet nearly always being surprised and enthralled by both the twist itself and the film’s presentation of it.

So here we go, somewhat vaguely, into the breach: nothing is what it seems in this movie, and the things that aren’t what they seem aren’t quite what they don’t seem to be, if that makes any sense at all (and if it doesn’t right now, trust me: it will). Most of the story takes place in and around the book collector’s country estate, a splendidly realized creation that’s not just one of the great mansions in film history—rivaled in recent movies only by the estate in another modern Gothic romance, “Crimson Peak”—but also an organizing metaphor for the whole film. It seems to change size and shape depending on a visitor’s angle of approach, and once you’re inside it, the geography at first seems so clear that you could draw floor plans of its most frequently used spaces; but after a few more scenes, you realize that you only saw a small part of the house, and not only are there rooms and wings you’ve never laid eyes on, there are secret doors and hidden passageways that only certain characters know about, leading to places where they can go to make love, commit sadistic acts of violence or spy on each other. Soon enough, the movie teaches you how to watch it, and you start asking questions, like, “What does this person truly hope to gain from sneaking here, doing this, stealing that?” and “Are they really spying in secret, or do the spied-upon people know somebody is watching?" and “Are the emotions being expressed by that character real, or are they faking it, or are they seeming to fake it while actually feeling those feelings?”

A good many moments resonate not because of what one character is saying, but because of the looks on other characters’ faces as they hear their words and either contemplate their true meaning or visualize images to accompany them. One of many show-stopping setpieces is a reading of perverse erotica from the book collector’s library, accompanied by one of the weirdest sex shows in mainstream cinema, but most of the sequence’s eerie power derives from observing the rapt expressions of men who’ve gathered to hear explicit fiction read aloud. Nearly as powerful, though far subtler, are the cross-cut sequences that feel like self-contained short stories of their own. Dialogue or recited scraps of letters or fiction become de facto narration laid over a cascade of images, brilliantly composed for a very wide frame by Chung Chung-hoon, and backed by Cho Young-wuk’s hypnotically repetitive yet rapturously melodramatic score, which rises to operatic heights when the characters are experiencing misery, ecstasy or fear.

Park’s sense of texture and color seems as intuitive as a painter’s, but the film’s narrative construction is as right-brained as Christopher Nolan at his wonkiest. "The Handmaiden" is neatly diced into thirds, each approximately 45 minutes long, each narrated by a different major character with parenthetical mini-narratives embedded within each, Russian-nesting-doll-style. As you ease into the middle third, you start to see moments and images revisited from different angles, seen or heard from fresh vantage points, or picked up slightly earlier or slightly later, altering their meaning or revealing previously withheld facts. The result is a rare film that could be equally well-represented by a billboard-sized collage of randomly chosen still-frames and a flowchart. “Even listening to the same story, people imagine different things,” a character warns us, so deep into the movie that the line plays not like a revelation, but a confirmation of what we we’ve been feeling in our marrow.

As you might have deduced, “The Handmaiden” is a story that is also about storytelling, and writing, and picture making and the obsessive-compulsive attention to detail that links so many great artists throughout history, regardless of medium, worldview or temperament. The movie is filled with literal and figurative nods to the act of artistic creation, from the loving close-ups of the book collector’s treasured volumes, the drawings and paintings made by Hideko and the fake count (he was originally hired to tutor her), and the shots of calligraphic sentences scratched onto letters and scrolls, to the way that blood spilled by lovemaking or disfigurement blooms upon mattresses and stone floors, rhyming with the lotus blossoms glimpsed in trees over the characters' heads, the eruptions of green that accompany transitions from indoors to outdoors, extreme closeups of voyeurs' eyeballs and shots of a full moon so bright that it seems to be burning a hole through the clouds.

These touches are all striking in their own right. But they never feel ostentatiously disconnected from the story and characters. “The Handmaiden” is about a lot of things, among them trust and vulnerability, imprisonment and freedom, and the tension between the authentic self and the façade that individuals create and that society imposes from without. Park never loses track of these ideas or forgets about them, but they are never expressed in tediously rhetorical terms —always in a gliding, playful, often audaciously musical way. "The Handmaiden" stirs the senses by appealing to our gut feelings, our sense of morals and ethics and our appreciation for the sight of great artists making magic as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. 

Ebertfest 2017, Day 2: No Transition Without Representation by Matt Fagerholm

The following review of "Elle" written by Sheila O'Malley was published in the catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 21st with actress Isabelle Huppert in attendance. Here is the introduction to the film, followed by the Q&A posted after the review.

Perhaps only Paul Verhoeven would open a film mid-rape—the violent attack observed by an unimpressed green-eyed cat—and then follow up with a scene where Michèle, the rape victim, face puffy from the beating, picks up a phone and orders takeout, asking questions about the "holiday roll." She's not blasé about what happened. She's freaked out. She stuffs the dress she was wearing in the trash. She takes a bath, blood from her genital area staining the bubbles above. She does not call the police. Instead, she orders food. It's hard to picture this woman shedding a tear. Ever. The opening sequence of "Elle" is just the start of the demented and exhilarating experience that is this movie. "Elle" is a high-wire act without a net.

Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, adapted for the screen by David Birke (and then translated into French by Harold Manning), "Elle" is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres. It's a rape-revenge-ensemble-comedy-thriller-stalker mashup, if you can even picture that. But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and ‘40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Barbara Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room. You can't imagine any of those women, or Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, going to a support group or therapy. They'll gut it out on their own.

The film is crowded with characters. Michèle has a lot going on: a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) who has an abusive pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) now dating a young yoga teacher, a bored sex fling with a married man, an elderly Botox-ed mother (Judith Magre) carrying on an affair with a gigolo, a pressing project at work (she co-owns a video game company), a handsome married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she stares at longingly from across the street, and a complex backstory not revealed until far into the film. This woman has too much to do to fall apart after the rape. But then she starts getting creepy texts from the unknown rapist: he knows where she is, what she's wearing. It could be anyone. Every man she knows is a suspect. She buys pepper spray (and, on impulse, a small axe) to protect herself. She says at one point, "Nut jobs I can handle. My specialty." You believe her. Maybe somewhere she always expected something like this, that horror would reach out its tentacles to find her again.

Verhoeven unbalances the existing tension of the "whodunit" aspect of "Elle" by giving us some pretty obvious clues early on. Verhoeven does not “bury the lede" because he's interested in things other than the plot cranking itself out to a "satisfying" conclusion. He’s interested in the psychology and behavior of this particular woman. His camera follows her everywhere, like a stalker, like a lover. As in life, whether we want to admit it or not, those lines are often blurred. Every interaction, not just sexual and political, contains small jostles for power, position, dominance. Who's the "top"? Who's the "bottom" in any given moment? There are competing objectives in every conversation, each side maneuvering to get what they want. Jostling for power comes in many different forms, playing out in romantic relationships, office dynamics, even in a conversation with a group of friends where you have something to say and everyone is too busy talking to give you "the floor." "Elle" is a dissertation on power dynamics.

Verhoeven's approach is, unsurprisingly, extremely provocative. Michèle is a woman in her early 50s, and her sexuality surges around inside her, seeking expression. It leads her into some pretty dark stuff. In real life, sex doesn't progress in a checklist of approved behaviors happening in the proper order. Sometimes people are drawn to danger, to risk. Rape fantasies are so common as to be mundane. The current view is that consent in sex is a cut-and-dry thing. Either you consent, or you don't. There is no doubt that the rape in "Elle" is horrifying. Verhoeven does not eroticize it. The rapist wipes the blood from Michele's vagina off of his hip bone as he gets up off of her. But later in the film, when Michèle does consent to sex, enthusiastically, watch how her lover is unnerved by a woman who wants it, who doesn't have to be talked into it. He's almost turned off by her sexual agency. And that, ultimately, is the most cutting observation in "Elle," and Verhoeven's aim is accurate and deadly. Men not knowing what to do with a woman who wants sex and knows how she wants it, men needing to be the "top," always, threatened by a woman taking the "top" role (not in sexual positions, but in attitude) ... well. These issues have been with us from the beginning of time, and won't be solved overnight. But "Elle" is one of the smartest films about consent I've ever seen.

Isabelle Huppert does not make even an unconscious bid for our sympathy. She never has, throughout her lengthy career and it is one of the things that distinguishes her from other actresses. Even very talented actresses want to make sure that we "understand" why the character does what she does. Huppert doesn't care. She's completely beyond those concerns. It's why she's so thrilling to watch and why she is in such rare company (Anna Magnani, Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford... it's a short list). There's always some element of mystery left intact in Huppert's work. Huppert can be frighteningly blank ("The Piano Teacher," "La Cérémonie"), she can be human and flawed ("Amour," and the upcoming "Things to Come"). In "Elle" she gets to be funny, and it's such a joy to watch! It's effortless for her. She's funny in her line-readings ("Bimbos with big tits never worried me, but the girl who's read 'The Second Sex' will chew you up..."), in her gestures and expressions. You cannot take your eyes off of her. Neither can Verhoeven. In a Q&A following the public screening at the New York Film Festival, Verhoeven described Huppert (also in attendance) as "unique in the world." She is.

Watching "Elle" feels like climbing Everest without an oxygen tank. The air is dizzyingly clear up there. And dangerous, too.

Ebertfest 2017, Day 3: A Special Short, The World's Greatest Actress and More by Peter Sobczynski

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