These two films suggest possible ways for women's self-expression in the midst of oppression.
The Salesman (Forushande)Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati
Studio: Amazon Studios
ElleDirector: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Christian Berkel, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor, Hugo Conzelmann, Stéphane Bak
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
A woman is assaulted in her home. How does she deal with it? It's a question too many women have had to ponder at one time or another. Two fascinating Cannes films this year put their heroines in such a situation. Neither is a politically correct primer: women leave the police out of it and decide how to deal out justice on their own, with unexpected results.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman -- awarded Best Screenplay and Best Actor prizes at the Festival in May -- opens on an empty theater set. Within a minute, the scene cuts to Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), fleeing their building in Tehran, which is literally coming down. We later find out that the set in the first scene is where they're appearing in a production of Death of a Salesman, as Willy Loman and his wife Linda. As consecutive scenes from Arthur Miller’s play unfold alongside the lives of Emad and Rana, the parallels between the two storylines become more layered and uneasy.
The couple's uncomfortable new digs, provided by another cast member, are comprised of a shabby but spacious place on a roof, including a room full of belongings left behind by the previous tenant, a prostitute. One day, Rana, on her way to the shower, buzzes in a man she thinks is her husband, but who is a stranger instead. At first, it's not clear what happens next. But when a neighbor who finds her takes her for dead, everyone assumes Rana was attacked by one of the prostitute's former clients.
As Emad and Rana deal with this disaster, their union falls apart, much like the union of the characters they play on stage. The Salesman shows this parallel subtly, scene by scene. In the immediate aftermath of the incident in the apartment, Emad, a high school literature teacher, acts in a conventionally rational way, while Rana makes demands we might expect of someone who's been traumatized. She refuses to go to the police, sabotages Emad’s efforts to track the perpetrator down, expects him to stay home with her at all times, and insists on using the shower in their former, now hazardous apartment. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rana was not raped. But she is plainly traumatized.
When Emad discovers the assailant, almost by chance, the roles are reversed. Now it is Rana who finds strength to follow her own moral judgment. As she worries about inflicting more damage than was done to her, Emad is set on revenge, against her increasingly desperate objections. Hosseini deserves his Best Actor award, bit by bit transforming from a principled and mild-mannered intellectual into a macho patriarch taking his protector role too far.
The final confrontation takes place in the couple’s now crumbling former apartment, an appropriate setting for a scene focused on broken relationships (this is, of course, a recurring theme in several of Farhadi’s films, including his 2012 Oscar winner, A Separation). As Emad loses his poise here, he destroys his bond with Rana as well.
Rana's experience with assault is hardly uncommon, and neither is the experience represented in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Termed a "rape comedy" the film appears, on its surface, to be inappropriate. The audience at Cannes laughed throughout the screening at witty lines by American screenwriter David Birke, adapted from Philippe Djian's novel, Oh…. But the movie does not poke fun at rape, as one might think. Instead, it mocks weakness of various kinds.
Elle opens with a dark screen and a soundtrack of groans that signal sex, perhaps consensual. When we are able to see something, it's a cat who's looking on, unconcerned. Then we see a masked perpetrator exiting the room, leaving behind a woman motionless on the floor amid broken cups and glasses. She gets up, cleans the debris and has a bath, observing as a pool of her own blood mixes with the soapy foam, while we realize that she is not going to phone the police.
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) takes on the damage with a disturbing calm. She has her son over for dinner, as planned, then spends the next day demanding that the programmers at her successful video game company add still more traditionally gendered (male on female) violence to a prototype.
She also goes through the usual motions of a rape victim, including an STD test and self-defense weapon shopping… and she daydreams about bludgeoning the rapist. What makes her behavior "comedic" is that the men around her can't abide it. Her cradle-robbing ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her dull-witted son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), and her casual lover, Robert (Christian Berkel), who is married to her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), are all appalled.
Michèle doesn't exactly explain herself, either. “Your stupidity was what first attracted me,” she says when she breaks off with Robert. Even her rapist can't get it up unless a woman is afraid of him, as we find out when she unmasks him during his second rape attempt. Only Huppert can make believable Michèle’s choice to continue forced sex as a game where she is in charge, a turn that recalls her award-winning performance in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. A relentless and hostile media landscape provides a crucial backdrop for the barbs and the blows.
The film's political points are clear enough. Verhoeven and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine recreate various incarnations of male voyeurism, including several versions of the first rape scene, video game graphics, and a grainy TV documentary about Michèle's father. As a mass murderer’s daughter and a child subject of an iconic macabre news photo, Michèle is always ready for some true crime buff to sling a plate of food at her power suit. Rape is another awful event in the chain of threats she has had to confront.
Both Farhadi and Verhoeven's interest in the politics of sexual violence against women has a current context, of course. On American college campuses especially, the ascent of "trigger warnings" and "microagressions" imposes limits on the ways that communities might experience and discuss violence and its effects. In their own different ways, Rana and Michèle challenge those limits, as well as what has been called a "victimhood culture". Their resistance suggests possible ways for self-expression in the midst of oppression.