Between the prickly businesswoman of Miss Sloane and a murderous pregnant woman on a killing spree in Prevenge, it’s obvious that the dark-hearted female is becoming a major part of the film industry and audiences are welcoming her with open arms. No upcoming movie embodies this more powerfully than Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, with its titular character whose complex reaction to her own sexual assault as well as her own psychological backlash against her aggressor makes her the most beguiling and unreadable character in a movie this year.
Elle’s incredible lead actress Isabelle Huppert is no stranger to exploring sexual politics or unruly women in her cinema. In fact, her most comparable character to the award-winning Elle is that of Erika in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. The film portrays sexual perversion and repression frankly and gets under the skin of a lead character who, during the day, teaches classical music to students but by night trawls sex shops and car parks in search of thrills and voyeuristic pleasures. When Walter, a charming pianist, flirts with her, she demands that he meets her sexual desires, however unconventional they are.
With The Piano Teacher, Huppert quite rightly won the Best Actress award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival (which she would win again for Elle last year). Huppert is one of the few actresses who can tackle the extremities of sexual fetishism with an understated ferociousness. With Erika, we don’t need constant chatter to bring us into the core of her character who is partly deviant in her desires but also repressed by a dependent relationship with her mother. The severe hunger and the images she hunts down to appease it are presented explicitly, the film rich with tension and desire boiling under the surface. But the real power is in the face of Huppert who can communicate with the slightest look the most complex of emotions. In real life, Erika is stoic and prudent but underneath she seeks dangerous games with real sexual agency and the film celebrates this.
Huppert is superb at tackling both the outside persona, the sadomasochist, and the emotionally manipulated daughter. She goes to great lengths to embody all facets of the character that in one moment we can be repulsed by and the next entirely sympathetic with, admiring her stance and sexual confidence. Huppert has a pursed expression that quivers and then breaks when her sadness reaches breaking point, especially in moments where it is clear that her control over her inner passions is lacking. It’s a gifted performance that worms into your mind.
In the end, The Piano Teacher proves less of a psychological examination of Erika’s sexual extremity but how she misplaces them into Walter, a young boy repulsed by her demands but also his desire for her. The end unfolds in a way where we wonder whether to judge her not for her inclinations but for trusting figures in her life that have driven her sexual needs to the brink.
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