Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE: SOS, the signs of decay are on the rise.

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Ben Wheatley is one of the (not just) British directors to keep an eye on. Up to High-Rise (2015) he had completed 4 feature films on micro to low budgets and on each occasion had performed miracles with the limited means at his disposal.
His debut Down Terrace (2009) was a kitchen sink gangsterdrama that was literally made in and around the childhood home of co-writer and star Robin Hill in 8 days. His 2nd film Kill List (2011) starts of as a thriller about some hit men and somewhere midway shifts into an occult horror film, as if Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) fell under the spell of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).
Next up was Sightseers (2012), a sort of comical horror version of Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976) written by the co-leads Alice Lowe and Steve Oram which was selected for the ‘Quizaine des Réalisateurs’ in Cannes. They play a couple that go on a caravan road trip leaving a bloody trail along their way. Not unlike High-Rise class differences are at the center of the film. Wheatley has since executive-produced Oram’s feature debut Aaaaaaaah! (2015) -via his production company Rook Films- a film with an even more primitive dissection of what happens when that thin coat of varnish called civilisation is scratched away.
A year later Wheatley made A Field in England (2013), shot on a micro budget in only 12 days. Set in the 17th century during the English Civil War, 3 deserters meet each other and some hallucinogenic mushrooms in (well yes) a field in England. As if Peter Watkin’s
Culloden (1964) and Ken Russel’s Altered States (1980) were put in a blender and the result felt like one of the best cinematic cocktails you ever have the pleasure to put down the hatch.

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This film gave Wheatley some cloud to attempt a (financially) more ambitious film project, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s (author of Crash, Empire of the Sun which were brought to the big screen by respectively David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg) 1975 dystopian novel High-Rise.
Dr. Robert Laing (played by rising star Tom Hiddleston in perhaps his best performance to date) has recently moved into a new luxury apartment which is part of 5 High-Rises of which only the first one has has been completed, the remaining four are still under construction. The architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) has come up with a rather unique concept. The five tower blocks are shaped like the five fingers of an open hand, the lake is to become its palm. The upperclass occupy the top floors of the buildings, the lower income families live in the lower ones. Your wealth determines your level (or floor). The occupants have access to a swimming pool, a gym, a supermarket and even a primary school. Besides going to work there is little reason for the residents to leave the building, gradually they become trapped like the bourgeoisie in a Buñuel film.

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Initially the occupants are soothed by the fact that “the building is still settling” but when the infractures many failures become more apparent the tensions between the upper and lower floors start to erupt. The opening scenes -a short of flash forward of things to come- of the film however immediately clearly show that the architect’s social experiment is doomed to fail. The film is set in the index finger of the so-called open hand, the writer obviously wanted to point out a few things about (British) society. It woud have been less subtle to have the action take place in the middle finger although towards the end director Ben Wheatley inevitably presents one to Margaret Tatcher.

Besides Hiddleston and Irons you will recognise Sienna Miller as a single mother of a bastard son of one of the upper class men, who has a fling with Dr. Laing, Luke Evans as Richard Wilder, a frustrated lower class man whose married with Helen (played by Elisabeth Moss mostly known for her role as Peggy Olson in the popular HBO series Mad Men) who is about to give birth to yet another addition to their family and Stacy Martin (Lars von Triers’ Nymphomaniac) as a cashier in the supermarket.

All the dialogue in the film in one way or another is indicative of the class difference (“You’ve built all this?” “Dreamt, conceived, I hardly pulled up my sleeves”) and is often hilariously funny in a subtle -or often less subtle- very British sort of way (“You can’t put him over the edge, he still owes me a game of squash”).
Notable is the use of the famous ABBA song S.O.S. featuring during a fancy dress party (evoking Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract & Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon?) being held in the penthouse -composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream) had it arranged for strings for the occasion- and later on in a brilliant cover version by Portishead.

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Among the films many highlights there’s sequence of a man jumping of the building to his death landing on the bonnet (or hood if you perfer) of a car, a scene that would make Richard Donner -who specialises in these type of ‘drop shots’- jealous.
Visually the film peaks with a brilliantly stunning shot that shares us a point of view as seen through a kaleidoscope. I’ve prepared the below montage of potential reference points culminating in the said kaleidoscope shot.
The clip starts of with some shots from Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1998) in which a young Dalai Lama is peaking through a big looking glass to his subordinates below. When Scorsese cuts to the POV the sequence has some typical Scorsese/Thelma Schoonmaker dissolving along the axis type of editing. There’s a similar shot from Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) where a character played by Richard E. Grant is looking through some theater binoculars down at the conductor of an orchestra over to a charater arriving in an opposite opera box. Here also Scorsese tries to visually convey the speed of the eye movement by skipping frames combined by dissolves along the axis.
There’s not really a direct connection with Wheatley’s kaleidoscope shot. So why include them any way? Well Scorsese was so impressed by A Field in England that he offered to produce Wheatley’s next film, and so he did. As High-Rise was already under way this would become the upcoming Free Fire.
Thematically you could say there is a bond between Kundun, The Age of Innocence and High-Rise as they are Scorsese’s most class conscious films. Kundun is a film about a society that at a certain stage gives its absolute power in the hands of a child and The Age of Innocence portays New York’s high society in the late 19th century and its strict social rules and customs which ruin the love affair between the two main characters. Scorsese even called this his most (emotionally) violent film.
The next 2 clips do have a direct link with High-Rise in my opinion. There’s a clip from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) featuring the “they’re all gonna laugh at you” kaleidoscope shot from that film’s celebrated prom sequence. And finally a shot from John Boorman’s Zardoz ( 1973) showing a fractured mirror shot including Sean Connery. Wheatley has expressed his admiration for Boorman’s Zardoz on many occasions including the 16 minute plus appreciation to be found on Arrow Film’s UK Blu Ray release + in his video clip for the band Editors ‘Formaldehyde’ which has references to both Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) as well as Zardoz. Even the picture on Wheatley’s Twitter profile (@mr_wheatley) features the giant stone head from this film.

The kaleidoscope shot is perhaps also linked with one of the many hilarious lines from the film. At a certain stage when the servants are no longer preparing the meals for their masters one of the rich men is wondering who cooked the food they’re eating to which one of the characters replies it’s now op to their wifes: “the women are rotating”. There’s a chance the montage I’ve prepared can’t be played in the UK (as per a message I’ve received from Youtube) so just in case I’ve uploaded it via WordPressvideo as well.


I was lucky enough to see the film in march of this year at the Offscreen film festival in Brussels in attendance of Ben Wheatley where it had the honour of closing the festival and I’ve since see it again when it was released in Belgium in June. The film even played better the second time round. When you watch the film for the first time there’s a chance you may need some time to adjust to the films chaotic opening, it’s definitely a busy film but Wheatley and Jump have certainly found the right tone for putting J.G Ballard’s novel to the screen. It’s nice to see that despite the bigger budget he did not have his vision muddled with. Can’t wait to see Free Fire.

Jan Bollen

ELLE: Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert’s rape of the century.

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At the end of the title sequence just when the name of director Paul Verhoeven appears on screen we hear some objects smashing on the floor while a violent struggle is taking place. As these sounds continue the frame turns black and remains that way for a short period of time. The actual first image of the film is that of a cat who’s a bemused onlooker while the lady of the house Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is being raped.
How this mature woman will cope with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted is basic-ally the main subject of this film. Its originality lays in the fact that the brutal rape seem-ingly hasn’t effected her too much. She certainly manifests a rather cavelier way of dea-ling with this event which one would expect to be rather traumatising. She doesn’t call the police but on the contrary cleans up the rape crime scene and takes a bath to clean herself while having a glass of red wine. When her son comes home and notices a bruise on her face she quickly comes up with the simple excuse that she fell off her bike.

The next day at work she and her entire team are watching a demo for a new video game she’s producing. In the demo we see a woman being assaulted by ‘some kind of monster’. In her feedback afterwards she’s complaining the segment was not violent enough and in addition mentions she couldn’t detect the pleasure on the woman’s face.
When during a dinner she’s having with some friends (one of the attendents will appear to be a lover, another her ex-husband) in a restaurant she casually mentions she has recently been the victum of a break-in and consequent rape she’s not looking for moral support but appears to be more interested in their (predictable?) reactions. Only the behaviour of her cat (its passivity during the rape and the ‘present’ of a bird) seems to be able to shake her up somewhat.

It’s obvious that Verhoeven is not interested in depicting a typical main character from a straightforward rape victim/revenge film, ranging from Nuts (1987) (you know, that film in which Barbara Streisand is being raped by Leslie Nielsen a.k.a. inspector Drebin from Naked Gun) and The Accused (1988) on the one hand to Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45 (1981) and The Brave One (2007) on the other, to name but a few. Instead Michèle Leblanc is yet another strong female character in a long line of strong women in his films, manipulation is often their game and sex one of the tools for survival, we’ll find out in due course what she’s up to.

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Even though the movie is dealing with a rather heavy subject matter it is actually extreme-ly funny and some audience members may at first wonder if their laughter is perhaps in-appropriate. But partically the way Isabelle Huppert portrays Michèle in her dealings with her son and his pregnant girlfriend, her elderly mother and her toyboy, her ex-husband and a (male) lover, you often can’t help but role over laughing. And we haven’t even brought up her newly arrived neighbours from across the street of whom the wife is an extremely devout christian. The scene in which Michèle is spying on them while they are setting up a Nativity set and a subsequent Christmas dinner scene, well … .
Many great films have centered around or featured infamous rape scenes, such as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), De Palma’s Casulaties of War (1989), Gaspard Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and most of the body of work of Verhoeven for that matter, but none where you as an audience member left the movie theater thinking: now that was fun! I’m obviously not referring to the rape scenes.

If you are familiar with Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre you’ll notice many similarities or nods to his previous work and you’ll discover that this time round he’s leaning towards a more subtle/restraint approach, at least for a Verhoeven film that is. A few examples: Just compare the ‘castration’ scissors scene from De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man, 1983)with the ‘stigmata’ scissors scene in Elle. Or ‘study’ the amount of ‘bodily fluids’ on display on the bed sheets in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) in the “He got off before he got offed” scene versus the perpetrator ‘leaving a message’ in this film.

The way the documentary TV footage is used revealing ‘her troubled past’ -which upto that point was only hinted at during conversations with her mother and sudden violent reactions from people who seem to recognise her for some reason- reminded me somewhat of the projected home movies of several fatal outings in The Fourth Man. Both sequences leave room to suggest the female lead characters may have been a in one way or another a participant in the horrific events that took place. Not unlike Catherine Tramell or Hazel Dobkins (played by Dorothy Malone) in Basic Instinct, a character which Sharon Stone, in the part that made her famous, keeps in touch with as a sort of ‘murderess technical advisor’ for her crime novels.

As usual Verhoeven can’t help himself but poke fun at religion (or religious people) in the best tradition of Luis Buñuel, one of the directors favorite cineasts. It’s important to note that Verhoeven had a brief but intense encounter with a strict Pentecostalism movement in his early adolescence when his girlfriend accidentally got pregnant, an event he also incorporated in his film Spetters (1980) and which he discusses in some detail during his directors commentary for that film and during several interviews.
What remained is an ongoing fascination with the historical figure of Jesus. He’s become a fervent participant and respected member of the Jesus Seminar and also wrote a book on the subject called Jesus of Nazareth. He has been trying to make a movie about the life of Christ for ages, but considering his basic premise is that Jesus was not the result of an immaculate conception (as is the popular ‘belief’) but instead that of (Holy) Mary being raped by a Roman soldier, you can understand why he’s been having difficulty getting this project greenlit anywhere, let alone in Hollywood. This however would be a Biblical film I might actually be looking forward to seeing. Furthermore, in Elle there’s a strong suggestion that Michèle’s son is not the biological father of his girlsfriend’s child, making him kind of a Joseph-like figure.
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Elle is an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s ‘Oh…’ which Verhoeven initially tried to set up in the US, finding the right actress proved troublesome. In hindsight it was a blessing the film eventually got made in French with Isabelle Huppert who is truly amazing. The film is very fresh and one wonders what a Hollywood version of this material would have been like. Only in the scenes in which Michèle suspects 2 of her colleagues of being the potential rapist the film tends to lean towards a more Hollywood clichéd approach but even here Verhoeven eventually found an original way out.
The DoP of the film is Stéphane Fontaine, his visual palette consists of skin color and light gray tones and the entire film appears to have been shot with the slightest of diffusions. His credits include 3 collaborations with Jacques Audiard (a.o. Rust and Bone), the recent Captain Fantasic and the upcoming Pablo Larraín biopic Jackie starring Natalie Portman in the title role of Jackie Kennedy.
The overall acting is brilliant. The cast mainly consisting of great French actors such as Charles Berling (L’ennui, 1998) in the role of the ex-husband, Judith Magre who plays Michèle’s mother and Laurent Lafitte as the neighbour. The German actor Christian Berkel who plays the wife of Anne Cosigny is the only actor Verhoeven worked with before in Zwartboek (Black Book), you may recognise him from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall and Tarantino’s Inglouroius Basterds. And there are 2 Belgian actors: Jonas Bloquet as the son, known from the controversial masterpiece Elève Libre (a.k.a. Private Lessons, 2008 directed by Joachim Lafosse) and the Kevin Costner vehicle 3 Days to Kill (2014) and Virginie Efira who plays the neigbour who already starred opposite Huppert in Mon pire cauchemar (My Worst Nightmare, 2011). To convince yourself even further of what a fearless actress Isabelle Huppert is you should see the scene in Mon pire cauchemar in which she lets herself be ridden on her back like a horse by Man Bites Dog (1992) star Benoît Poelvoorde.
This could have easily resulted in a euro pudding, certainly given the fact that the Dutch director doesn’t fully master French but instead the film is vintage Verhoeven and it’s hard to imagine any area’s the film could have been improved on.
Jan Bollen