‘Breathtaking nerve’: Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Photograph: Allstar/Picturehouse Entertainment
Is thespian auteurism a thing? Can an actor author a film they haven’t scripted or directed through sheer force of presence? Watching Isabelle Huppert burn herself into the already too-hot-to-handle Elle (Lionsgate, 18), you believe so. Paul Verhoeven, himself a pretty assertive film-making brand, has repeatedly stated that he couldn’t have made this exhilaratingly kinked study of sexuality without Huppert’s “amorality” – a term few but he could apply with such doting pride – to steer matters.
It’s hard to imagine any other actor making quite such sense of the cinema’s most defiantly complex female lead in recent memory: Michèle Leblanc, unflappable CEO of a video game company, who refuses to let being savagely raped interrupt her life any more than it has to. As she resolves to own her victimhood in the most dauntless way possible, David Birke’s spidery script presents a million possible avenues of rape-revenge catharsis, not once taking the most expected one. Complicated, corrosively funny and acted with breathtaking nerve by Huppert, it treads dangerous ground while defending the wildly idiosyncratic nature of desire.
The particularity of a woman’s identity is also central to – embedded, indeed, right in the title of – Certain Women (Sony, 12), a beautiful, breeze-ruffled midwestern triptych from Kelly Reichardt, American cinema’s reigning master of the miniature. Three ostensibly unrelated stories of feminine resolve in a dour man’s world gradually illuminate one another in Reichardt’s most elegantly cross-stitched film to date. There are quiet rewards in the chapters anchored by Laura Dern’s small-time lawyer and Michelle Williams’s legacy-seeking wife and mother, but it’s the sublime third chapter that lifts the film to the heavens: a piercing maybe-romance between Kristen Stewart’s gangly law student and a lonesome Native American rancher (the marvellous Lily Gladstone) aching for a moment’s understanding. Reichardt, if no one else, grants her wish.
In something of a bumper week for arthouse standouts, I scarcely know how to describe and celebrate Pablo Larrain’s darting, diving, dazzling Neruda (Network, 15) in capsule form. Not at all a biopic but a restless, inventive evocation of the life and work of Chilean poet-statesman Pablo Neruda, it risks some poetry of its own as it melds biographical fact, literary interpretation and a fanciful shot of film noir. As Gael García Bernal’s fictional detective doggedly chases Neruda in his years of exile, Larrain embarks on a far more rewarding hunt for the man’s soul.
More straightforward mysteries of identity are on offer in Frantz (Curzon Artificial Eye, 12), François Ozon’s handsome, lightly perfumed remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, a post-first world war drama in which the meeting between a young German war widow and the dashing Frenchman who claims to have known her husband triggers an elegant shuffle of secrets and lies. Shot mostly in glossy, slightly textureless black and white, it’s engrossing Sunday afternoon fare, though it could use a touch of Ozon’s more lurid side.
Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows (Thunderbird, 15), on the other hand, has just the right balance of old-school class and blood-stained vulgarity. A ripe, roaring spy thriller set in Japanese-occupied 1920s Korea, it’s a genuine yarn that glides without pause from one bravura set piece to the next, so confident in its classicism that it even finds an essential new cinematic application of Ravel’s done-to-death Bolero at its climax.
If you prefer your brash blockbusters without subtitles, you could do worse than Logan (Fox, 15). A brawny, gory new outing for Hugh Jackman’s sabre-fingered X-Men antihero, Wolverine, it ironically reanimates a fusty franchise by stripping much of the animation out of it. We’re in the grim, grubby superhero realm that Christopher Nolan made fashionable, with Wolverine gaining more internal sturm und drang to match the new atmospherics. (If you really want to amp up the darkness, the Blu-ray offers Logan Noir, an all-monochrome alternative version of the film.) It’s tight and nasty and swaggers along better than recent, lumbering X-Men efforts, younger fans of which, incidentally, are blatantly excluded from this 15-certificate upgrade.
The young adult demographic, however, is quite intelligently targeted in Netflix’s latest exclusive, Sundance-poached premiere Before I Fall, in which a popular high-school princess (star-in-waiting Zoey Deutch) dies in a post-party car crash, only to be cosmically saved and suspended, reliving her last day over and over until she finds a way to change her fate.
That the premise is ripped wholesale from Groundhog Day won’t trouble many of the teens who will warm to its thoughtful consideration of adolescent morality and social politics. Director Ry Russo-Young, meanwhile, gives it an impressively mature, stormy aesthetic. Kids, as ever, are not quite what they used to be.