Two powerfully disturbing, provocative films centered on two twentieth-first century women, maneuvering successfully, in previously male populated arenas. “Elle” , “Michelle LeBlanc” (remarkable, brilliant Isabelle Hubert) runs a Video Game Company; she is violently raped in the first scene while her cat passively watches; she decides to discover the rapist using her own tools of detecting; shameless, empowered, her calculated, creative sleuthing slowly eliminates viable candidates; ignoring the snide antics of her male coworkers, her diligence unveils the flaws, quirkiness of the men and women in her life. Hubert imbues Elle with Herculean, scary strength; she is twisted, cruel, terrifying, maddening in her methods. She is unlikable, but admirably intimidating.
Director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) scenes of tawdriness, brutality, ugliness evolve in refined, elegant living rooms; fashionable, couturier couples, Cristal champagne; idiosyncratically the action slides into its rightful location, the basement of Elle’s elite home. Team Verhoeven/Hubert seamlessly weave a complex web of moral turpitude; Elle has been a victim her entire life; as a ten-year-old she inadvertently helped her serial killer father; she is damaged and inflicts wounds indiscriminately; amoral, calculating, frozen.
Writer/director Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann”aka “Winfried Conradi” (Peter Simonischek) father of major protagonist “Ines Conradi” (Sandra Huller), a successful consultant, balancing stressfully, her testosterone driven clients and boss; Toni, unabashedly, with idiocy and love invades her home and workplace in Bucharest, Romania; wearing wigs, fake teeth, he circumvents her goals and gleans the attention due solely to her. Her victimization, resulting from a capitalist environment where women are subjected to the pejorative dictates of men; she, like Elle, uses her sexuality to seek one-upmanship with her partners; satisfaction blooms with their degradation. Toni fractures Ines’s structured, abusive compliance, freeing her from an unworthy, stultifying environment; likewise, the rapist breaks Elle’s frigid composure, allowing her to seek retribution on her terms and unleashing long imprisoned emotions.
Both films are in need of editing; highly disturbing, at times repugnant to view; “Elle” and “Toni Erdmann” focus on intelligent women who despite obstacles, have succeeded; there’s a decadence, depravity that exceeds the boundaries of voyeurism (not propriety) in their behavior; titillation in self-satisfying manifestations; prurient exhibitionism, retaliation against the male gaze?
In conclusion we’re left with an emptiness, an unsatisfying vacuum, “signifying nothing”, questioning if these two women, are beyond repair.