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Cannes: Rape-revenge thriller wraps up Palme d’Or race

SBS Distribution | France's Isabelle Huppert delivers an outstanding performance in "Elle" by Dutch veteran Paul Verhoeven

Isabelle Huppert is in frighteningly imperious form as a woman stalking her stalker in Paul Verhoeven’s provocative comeback, “Elle”, while Iran’s Asghar Farhadi kicks a psychological beehive in “The Salesman”, a tale of guilt, shame and revenge.


The 69th Cannes Film Festival was in desperate need of an electroshock after Friday’s inexplicable Sean Penn stinker, and the double whammy that brought the official competition to a close has provided just that.

The race for the Palme d’Or came to a blazing finish on Saturday with the screening of Paul Verhoeven’s riveting thriller about a ruthless business executive’s outlandish revenge after she is attacked by a masked man at her home. “Elle” is a veritable kick in the gut, as compelling as it is disturbing. It marked the veteran Dutch provocateur’s French-language debut and his first competition entry at Cannes since erotic thriller “Basic Instinct” back in 1992.

Cannes-veteran Isabelle Huppert stars as Michelle, the unlikely head of a video game company that produces ultra-violent, heavily eroticised entertainment. After she is chillingly raped in the film’s opening scene, Michelle sets about unmasking her assailant and seeking justice for herself (without going to the police), to the bewilderment of friends and family.

“Elle” shifts effortlessly between horror, perversion and hilarious satire, flirting dangerously with the notion that rape victims might draw some kind of twisted thrill from their ordeal. It works because Michelle’s character is so uniquely enigmatic and ambiguous, carried by an extraordinary Huppert. A rape-revenge thriller infused with dark humour, in which the victim stalks her stalker back, sounds right up Huppert’s street, and I cannot imagine the film having such insidious potency without her.

Taraneh Alidoosti (left), Asghar Farhadi and Shahab Hosseini (right) pose during the photocall for "The Salesman".
Taraneh Alidoosti (left), Asghar Farhadi and Shahab Hosseini (right) pose during the photocall for "The Salesman".

Verhoeven’s electrifying comeback followed another strong offering by Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, which also examines the fallout from a traumatic assault (again featuring unwholesome revenge and no police). “The Salesman” is a far more rewarding effort than Farhadi’s previous Cannes entry, “The Past” (2013). It confirms his ability to generate almost unbearable suspense out of unvarnished family dramas, though the plot feels a little contrived.

The Tehran-set film opens on a rehearsal of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (hence its title), where we meet stage actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). The couple’s routine is disrupted when Rana is attacked in the shower by an unknown intruder, and while she is understandably devastated by the incident, it soon becomes apparent that Emad’s own distress and hurt pride make him even more volatile.

“The Salesman” is a deeply psychological film, a work of shifting allegiances in which sympathy for the protagonists is steadily eroded by their intransigent and cruel conduct. It was warmly received at the press screening, adding one more name to a long list of potential Palme d’Or candidates in an increasingly open race.


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