Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Robinson; 2017)

My full name is Shaun Ferguson.  I’ve been fascinated with film my entire life, and have intensively studied both screenwriting and acting while also dabbling in nearly every element of film making I can including a rather detailed online study of film editing from a person in the industry, lots of time discussing film criticism with fellow critics, worked with close friends and family who have degrees in cinematography or at least a lot of time in classes behind a camera, and so on.  While my majors in college were in English and Theater, my minor was in psychology and I have had a fascination with it ever since and have continued studying it on my own my entire life.  I have always been enamored with comic books and superhero culture, and while I haven’t collected comic books in a very long time, I still continue to follow what is going on in the worlds of superherodom to some extent and I love studying the genre in regard to sociology, culture, politics, and religion.  Also, I was raised in an extremely sexually repressed environment of very conservative Christians both at home and at the school I attended, and as an adult have turned a near complete 180 degrees away from that upbringing.  I say all this so that when I gush incessantly about how groundbreaking, fantastic, and enlightening Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, we will both understand that I realize this is a film that may as well have been written with myself specifically as the target audience, it all hits that close to my home.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is yet another biopic in this part of the movie season which gives us biopic after biopic about Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the polyamorous trio who created Wonder Woman and made her a household name.  In 1928 he two Marstons were pioneers in the new field of psychology.  He had a doctorate from Harvard and taught at Tufts University, she also had degrees in both psychology and law, though not doctorates because she wasn’t allowed to at the time as she was a woman, and in addition to their work in the psychology department at Tufts they were also developing a brand new machine which they called a lie detector.  Olive Byrne was a student of William’s whom he became quite enamored of largely due to the fact that she seemed to be an exact mirror image of his wife.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shows us the story of how all these factors ultimately weaved together to create the comic book character Wonder Woman.

While the writing of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women definitely follows the beats of the stereotypical biopic formula so closely you can practically predict ahead of time exactly when character introductions will move onto the inciting incident then to the next complication and so on, most everything about the way the film’s story is told is quite unique.  It’s neither a life story nor a focus on one specific event.  It doesn’t chronicle primarily one character, but the relationship between three, and it’s not about one specific event but rather how so many events, interests, and interactions culminated in something which not only still resonates today, but has only become an even greater and more beloved symbol than when Wonder Woman was first introduced.  Yet, despite the complexity of the story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman never confuses nor slows its pace to a crawl always keeping up the perfect balance between making sure the story is told in great enough detail and gripping the attention of its audience.

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The way Professor Matston and the Wonder Women treats its subject matter is also noteworthy.  While the character development is fantastic, the fact that it focuses so vastly on psychology sets it apart from standard character development and makes the writing both insightful and educational simultaneously.   It also treats the polyamorous relationship between its three main characters with an incredibly deft touch, never judging it in either a positive nor a negative way and also avoiding ever making it exploitative nor entirely clinical but rather portraying an unusual sexual relationship and the psychology behind it in the most mature manner I’ve ever seen in a film.

The camerawork in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is nothing spectacular overall, but it is a step above your standard biopic cinematography and the occasional scene, such as when Marston first sees Olive in the outfit which inspires Wonder Woman’s appearance, is a downright work of art.  The costumes and art direction are top notch, though creating a look to the film which is both authentic and gorgeous and the costumes in particular could get notice come award season.

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Any biopic’s success hinges on the quality of the acting particularly by its leads and not only does it not disappoint in this area, but everyone here entirely impresses.  The two women, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, in particular display talent so on point and nuanced that nearly any actor working today would consider what they’ve done in this film a triumph.  Luke Evans despite playing the title character doesn’t have the emotional depth to his Professor Marston that the ladies do, but he still gives an excellent portrayal anchoring the plot and the other characters in what is the best performance of his career.

Final verdict:  It’s rare enough that a film can be complex, emotional, intellectual, educational, and entertaining at the same time, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also has true insight into human psychology and sexual dynamics.  I wasn’t that excited about seeing yet another biopic in a year which seems to be layering them on one after another more than seemingly any other year in at least recent memory, but not only did Professor Marston and the Wonder Women absolutely blow my socks off, it’s one of the best biopics I have ever seen and far and away the best so far of this year.  I fell in love with its characters and its story, and I’m pretty sure I had a personal psychological breakthrough by the time it was over, but the best compliment I can give it is that when Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was finished and the credits began to roll I didn’t want it to end.

Elle (Verhoeven; 2016)

The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen.  The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock.  It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward.  This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).

Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime.  Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance.  Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree.  It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.1200

Why should there be an apology?  Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level.  It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated.  She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road.  In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today.  So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way.  Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one.  The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.

The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist.  We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues.   More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself.  In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think.  Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family.  This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.

Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed.  I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.

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If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film.   Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics.  Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist.  It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power.  Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.

That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say.  Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work.  Michéle is a seriously flawed person.  She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath.  Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her.   If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?

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Final recommendation:  Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen.  I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons.  It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires.  It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on.  It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically.  This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging.  If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.