Paul Verhoeven sure knows how to wake an audience up. His latest, Elle, played at Cannes and was brought to the Toronto Film Audience, which I saw at a 9 a.m. screening. The first scene of the film is Isabelle Huppert’s character being sexually assaulted on her kitchen floor. From the shocking opening frame, Huppert’s character tries to figure out who did this to her and why. She’s unnervingly calm about the entire situation, refusing to call the police for her own specific reasons. She laughs at the thought of getting a gun but buys an industrial can of pepper spray and a hatchet just in case. She isn’t hell-bent on revenge but deep down she wants to be ready. It’s a stunning and twisted work of art, so depraved and so Verhoeven.
Elle is a movie that will linger for some time. I walked back to my hotel, cutting through the main street that is blocked off each year as the designated festival street, and could only think about the movie I had just watched. Why did the characters do some of the things they did and why did others react the way they did. Even when some of Elle felt unanswered, I was still mesmerized. It’s possible Top 10 material.
My second screening of the day was much different. J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls had its world premiere at the festival and made an auditorium of 1,000-plus weep and brought them to their feet for an extended ovation when the movie was over. Bayona’s (The Orphanage and The Impossible) earned its range of reactions. The beautiful tale is a story of love and loss and the power of the imagination. A Monster Calls explores familiar territory in creative ways, which makes the story of a boy dealing with the looming loss of his mother such a powerful experience. Newcomer Lewis MacDougall is wonderful, as is Felicity Jones as his mother, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother and Liam Neeson as the voice of the monster.
Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I went to a late screening of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. When the film premiered at Cannes in May, it was met with praise and boos, so I had to check it out based solely on its division. What a surprise this strange little movie was. Both dramatically pleasing and wonderfully blended, Assayas mixes drama and the supernatural perfectly. He reteams with Kristen Stewart (they previously made Clouds of Sils Maria) for a story about a young personal shopper in France, who is also a medium. The movie is as outlandish as you would expect but never not interesting. Stewart continues to grow as a performer, surprising last year in Clouds of Sils Maria but here she demands our respect and attention. She’s earned it.
It was a quieter year at TIFF for me, not really going to any of the big talked about premieres. I enjoyed being able to see some movies that played at Cannes and will have a much slower release platform. I was fortunate enough to see a diverse crop of movies, some good, some great and one not. It was an interesting mix this year.
Now on to Oscar.