Film

Cannes 2016: 'The Salesman' + 'Elle'

The Salesman (Forushande)

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
Rated: NR
Studio: Amazon Studios
Year: 2016
Website

Elle

Director: 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
Rated: NR
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2016
Website

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.

Elle

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.

Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Books
Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Books

The American Robot: A Cultural History [By the Book]

In The American Robot, Dustin A. Abnet explores how robots have not only conceptually connected but literally embodied some of the most critical questions in modern culture, as seen in this excerpt from chapter 5 "Building the Slaves of Tomorrow", courtesy of University of Chicago Press.

Dustin A. Abnet
Film
Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Film

'The Serpent's Egg' Marks One of Ingmar Bergman's Strangest Efforts

The Serpent's Egg bares many of the Bergman's trademark features – the suffocating auras of despair and an underdog's sense of triumph over tragedy – but falls short of a more intelligent rendering of human drama.

Recent
Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Music

'Stone Crush' Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten -- or never known -- artists that passed through the doors of Memphis' most storied studios in an attempt at just one fleeting moment of fame.

Music

Circles Around the Sun Shoot for the Stars on New Album

Jamrockers Circles Around the Sun's self-titled third album finds the band transcending darkness after losing their founder in 2019 to chart a groovy new course.

Music

Jazz's Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to 'The Women Who Raised Me'

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.