Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Jonas Bloquet, Virginie Efira, Christian Berkel
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Giving a cursory glance at the basic premise of Paul Verhoeven's latest picture, one would easily expect it to be yet another exploitation B-movie in which a woman is brutally violated, plays the victim, and then enacts some kind of vigilante revenge on her attacker. However, what's most startling about Elle is that Verhoeven never allows the titular character to become mired in a standard victim narrative; giving actress Isabelle Huppert the chance to deliver an astounding performance as a woman both repelled by and drawn to sexual violence.
Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, Elle often plays as both a subversive twist on 90s lurid melodramas as well as an affectionate embrace of them. Given the provocative subject matter, this feels like something Brian DePalma might have helmed at one point in time, but in our uber-sensitive era, Verhoeven's take on the material feels downright revelatory. It's a film likely to spark controversy not simply because of the violence it depicts, but for unapologetically giving us the story of a woman in her early 50s who wants sex and will go to some very disturbing places to get it. Rather than being an exploitation of rape culture, Elle reveals what happens when a woman takes full control, eradicating the male attacker's insatiable need for control and dominance. That the film does this by also being a thriller/whodunit/pitch black comedy while never going off the rails tonally, is a testament to both Verhoeven's command of the material as well as Huppert's uncanny ability to engender both revulsion and empathy, often in the very same scene.
Huppert plays Michele, a co-owner of a video game company who has a lot on her plate, both professionally and personally. Not only fighting an intense deadline to complete the latest fantasy video game epic, but she's also juggling a relationship with her dim-witted son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) dating a much younger yoga instructor, and her Boxtox-laden mother (Judith Magre), who insists on carrying on with a male gigolo. There's also a handsome neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she secretly pines for, and her rather meaningless fling with the husband of her best friend (Anne Consigny). This is all to say that Michele is a complex, career driven individual making some very dubious decisions and responding to the people in her life with a mixture of sympathy, disdain, and irreverence. Basically, she feels like a real person--damaged, funny, cold, wise-- and there's no doubt Huppert is the reason we remain utterly fascinated by this woman.
From the opening moments where we witness a brutal sexual assault, Verhoeven creates a sensation of dislocation based purely on the way Michele responds to the attack. She calmly cleans up broken glass, takes a warm bath, makes a phone call, and Huppert plays these moments with a disturbing calm and lack of emotion. Verhoeven even sets up the predictable narrative trajectory--Michele buys an axe, learns how to shoot a gun, becomes increasingly paranoid about every leering male gaze she receives at work--only to completely upend expectations. The most disturbing aspect of Elle isn't the threat of more attacks but rather, Michele's compliant attitude toward such a possibility, going so far as to become aroused at the prospect of continued sexual violence, which is really more about power than sex to begin with. What this does is create a lead character who willfully puts herself in harms way; subverting the threat of male domination while at the same time satirizing the victim narrative.
Elle eventually descends into grimacing psychosexual encounters, but like Michele, it refuses to apologize for or explain its inherent contradictions. For every moment of trauma, there's another riding the level of dark comedy; such as a restaurant scene where one of Michele's friends politely asks the waiter to wait a few moments before popping the wine bottle after they've learned about the attack. Is the film exploitative? Misogynist? Feminist? A mixture of all of these things? Tough to say. What cannot be ignored, however, is Verhoeven's refusal to compromise and consequently, Huppert's complete lack of ego in shaping one of the year's most indelible performances.