It’s been another solid week of film here in Chicago.
The new Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out. We found it to be thrilling yet comfortingly familiar. The iconic director Ang Lee made his return with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk which we found to be a misfire. Anchored by Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, we enjoyed Bleed For This, which is the hellish story of a boxer’s recovery from injury. We thought the newly released Edge of Seventeen was effortlessly smart and charming while being an authentic examination of modern day high school society. We also found Tom Ford’s first film in seven years, Nocturnal Animals, to be sexy, dangerous, and horrific.
Some other interesting films came out this week as well. Let’s talk about them.
In the weeks leading up to President Nixon resigning in 1974, a local news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, took her news station’s latest mission statement (to lead with blood and guts) to heart by shooting herself in the head on live television. The event made the national newscasts that night, and then like all things caught in a news cycle, it quickly faded as audiences moved on to the next story. Based on the life of Christine Chubbuck and directed by Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simeon Killer), Christine is the devastatingly detailed account of a person in the quiet throes of depression, trying with all her might to hold it back by throwing herself into the work she cared so much about.
As portrayed by Rebecca Hall (who, in a just and fair world, should get an Oscar nomination for her performance here), Chubbuck was a perfectionist to a fault. She fretted about every frame of footage, her voiceover, and the copy that she read to introduce her package pieces on community events and personalities. She wanted to do more serious work, but was happy to be working alongside such respected on-air personalities like George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchor, and even Steve (Tim Simons of “Veep”) the weatherman. But as the station (and news in general) began leaning in the direction of sensationalism, she and station manager Michael (Tracy Letts) butted heads on more than a few occasions.
Director Campos, working from a screenplay by Craig Shilowich, takes us through typical days in Chubbuck’s life, most of which involves work, but also leaves time for volunteer work at a local children’s hospital ward and spending tense time with her hippie mother (J. Smith-Cameron) who lives with her. Christine is a bundle of anxiety, so much so that you can almost hear her teeth grinding when she’s particularly intense about something. When we meet her, she’s been experiencing on-and-off stomach pains that turn out to be a cyst on one of her ovaries, the very thought of which sends her into an emotional tailspin, and Rebecca Hall perfectly captures a person in that headspace attempting to keep it together on the outside. Her eyes say it all, and they can get scary in an instant.
Bits of information almost sneak out about her life before Sarasota. Her mother mentions something about her slipping into one of her “moods” like she did back in Boston, where Chubbuck previously worked. When George takes her to a type of group therapy session, she reveals to a total stranger so many details about her life in a game of “Yes, but…” that you almost want her to talk slower so we can process the information. The film never dwells in one situation for too long; neither does it feel rushed. Director Campos gives Chubbuck’s final days the respect they deserve and doesn’t honor her memory by turning her flaws into spectacle—something she fought against and, some would say, gave her life to avoid.
Christine captures the period and the mood of the country quite faithfully, without getting lost in ’70s kitch. But nothing about the film quite prepared me for the depth of the compassion and pain that Rebecca Hall brings to her role. Even when she was trying to relax and be social, she never truly dropped her reporter’s voice and sense of professionalism, which may have been a source of her downfall. Christine is as revealing as it is tragic, and Campos and his team turn her story into a symptom of greater issues in the country rather than simply a singular event. This is a truly magnificent work.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. On Christine’s opening night, Friday, November 18, actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts will take part in an audience Q&A after the 7pm showing. For details and advance tickets go to the Music Box Theatre.
Before the movie even fades in, we hear the sounds of what is clearly a sexual assault, and when the scene itself is finally revealed, the attack is over and the rapist is composing himself before he leaves. After he’s gone, his victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert, the reigning queen of French angst), pulls herself up, straightens herself out, and goes about her evening, which includes a visit from her grown son and drinks with friends. Welcome to the twisted psychological world of Elle, from director Paul Verhoeven (Black Book, Basic Instinct, Showgirls), in which the lead character seems largely unaffected by her attack, but is still intent on figuring out who her assailant was.
Based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian (adapted by David Birke), Elle doesn’t qualify as a revenge film because it becomes clear at a certain point that Michele isn’t seeking retribution for her attack. Something about it struck a chord in her largely frozen soul, and she’s interested in recapturing the sensation. Dubbed “rape noir” by some who saw it at its premiere in Cannes, the film becomes part detective story, part examination of what Michele’s life had become prior to the attack that she would react to it so unexpectedly. Huppert has played women like this before in movies about losing the thrill of living, only to have it reignited by an act of violence—self inflicted or at the hands of someone else.
Lest you think Elle’s conclusion might have something to do with discovering the identity of the rapist, that actually happens at about the halfway mark, and where it goes from there certainly contributes to one of the most controversial films not just of the year, but in recent memory. Driving home the irony of her life, Michele is the head of a video game company at which she is constantly driving her programmers and designers to make the violence more realistic and the attacks on female characters more sexual.
And the most shocking part of Elle is how well it all comes together, not despite its lewd and lascivious nature but because of it. In addition, the film has a dark humor that rips through its heart and makes it all the more compelling and even moving at times. This is director Verhoeven’s sweet spot—part exploitation, part social commentary, and a subtle dose of compassion. This is a film that exists in an amoral setting, and we as witnesses must reject it or adjust our thinking to continue on Michele’s journey with her. She must tour her life and come to the realization that, if the rape were a personal attack (rather than random), there are many men in her world that might want to see harm come to her.
The primary reason Elle works at all—and it certainly won’t for everyone—is Huppert, who continues a succession of films that illustrate that she will go to any length to get a reaction from audiences. Many actors are labelled fearless, but none of them hold a candle to her expressions of pain, sexuality, and psychological upheaval. This is where she exists in one movie after another, never repeating herself, and exposing new areas of the human condition with each new role. In Michele, she portrays a woman determined to regain control of a life that has gotten out of control. To her, this attack was a symptom of her wavering confidence, and she’ll be damned if she doesn’t reclaim it. The film is provocative, aggressive, insightful and an attempt to get you interested in someone else’s life for a change. Elle is a challenge, maybe even a dare, and its contempt for what is normal is palpable and thrilling.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Veteran cinematographer and first-time feature director Margaret Byrne spent six years tracking the lives of three African-American high school students in Bertie County, North Carolina, and the result is Raising Bertie, a work that digs deep and examines the factors that go into creating and destroying dreams among rural youth. One of the most compelling and telling facts we’re told around this particular location is that 27 prisons are located within a 100-mile radius of the county, giving you some idea what the establishment thinks of these kids and their prospects, and there are times where the film feels like little more than a struggle to keep these three from landing in jail.
The film opens as hopeful as it could, with all three boys being a part of a specialty education program called The Hive, which features what might be one of the single most hopeful and targeted teaching methods these kids will ever have, with special attention paid to every student and messages of positivity build into the fabric of the program. But when the board of education pulls The Hive’s funding, the three are send back into public schools where there are tossed into crowded classroom and indifferent instructors, and things immediately go badly for our subjects. What is most incredible about this film is that you can actually see it happen before your eyes, as all of the students’ enthusiasm for learning and believing in themselves is erased from their lives.
Each of their lives follows a different path, some less dire than others, but with The Hive’s personal touches gone, everything seem more difficult and less certain. Every person in the film—parents and children—is allowed to express thoughts on how they got where they are and where they’d like things to end up, and director Byrne is there to capture and measure the resulting life. Raising Bertie illustrates the institutional shortcomings of the region with very personal stories, and more often than not, it’s a tough experience to view, let alone live.
The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Friday, Nov. 18 at 8pm, Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm, and Sunday, Nov. 20 at 5:30pm, director Margaret Byrne, producer Ian Kibbe, and editor Leslie Simmer will be present for audience discussions. Go to the event’s website for details and advance tickets.