Elle | Director: Paul Verhoeven | Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt | Writer: David Birke | Starring: Isabelle Huppert | Running Time: 130 minutes | Language: French (English subtitles) | Year: 2016
I don’t believe the topic of sexual assault is particularly fertile ground for compelling drama and yet the framing of such cruel acts in Paul Verhoeven’s latest French film subverts just about every expectation the rational mind can imagine.
Elle is all about Michèle (Isabelle Huppert); a wealthy businesswoman who we see violently raped in her home at the beginning of the movie. Surprisingly, a view of the attacker casually pulling up his trousers and exiting through a shattered glass door doesn’t set you on edge half as much as Michèle’s nonchalant return to regular life and it’s this stoic attitude of hers that grabs our attention and refuses to let go for the next two hours.
Whether her resolute attitude is brought on by trauma, by a hardened resolve, or by a lack of basic realism, is made deliberately hard to read and it’s this generous quality that makes Elle such a challenging and worryingly entertaining flick.
Isabelle Huppert surely plays the role of her acting career by portraying Michèle as a rare and confident woman living a life as dismal and quietly desperate as any committed to film. Being the publicly despised daughter of a convicted serial killer is bad enough, but Michèle faces yet more challenges at her video game company, where she must contend with both the adulation and aggression from her male employees – many of whom are now suspected of being her vile stalker.
For much of Elle’s first half, Michèle busies herself with more trivial concerns than her violation and if that seems jarring then it’s a feeling that’s all well and intended. Verhoeven has never been one to shy away from provocative material and his immaculately-staged set pieces, which depict scenes of a graphic and disturbingly sexual nature, are what afford Elle an edge that’s hard enough to make its adult themes really hit home.
Elle is an intentionally deceptive work that takes great pleasure in subverting the audience’s expectations. What starts out as a pretty clear-cut revenge tale quickly twists and transforms into something a lot darker and dare I say it: interesting.
When Michèle purposefully backs into her ex-husband’s car for example our feelings are immediately shaken up again; we’re still feeling immense sympathy for her, but her alarming insensitivity to the people in her life strains that sympathy in some rather uncomfortable ways. Indeed, despite her unenviable situation, Michèle clearly isn’t concerned with her friends’ compassionate pleas and she demands no sympathy in her secret quest to confront the sicko who brutalized her.
What makes all of this suffocating drama easier to digest though is the sort of light-hearted delivery that Verhoeven’s fans will be very familiar with. “I have better things to do than host diabolical Christmas Parties” says Michèle in a tone so condescending and hilarious that you almost believe her! The humour isn’t as over-the-top to be the next American Psycho or anything as Elle is never far away from the dark themes that will once again have you wincing in anticipation for what comes next.
Where the issue of sex crime is concerned, Elle has arrived at a rather topical time, though it doesn’t seem to be making any profound statements about consent or gender politics either. Elle is primarily a character study that uses those sensitive issues and, it has to be said; some shallower side characters, as kindling for its unpredictable drama and Isabelle Huppert’s fiery performance.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t also spare a mention for the film’s depiction of video games. Video games make uncommon appearances in cinema, but when they do they’re typically used for clutter and maybe to bluntly reinforce an obvious point or insincerely pander to wider pop culture. Like most movies of this ilk, Elle isn’t totally concerned with legitimacy as Michèle’s newest project incorporates footage of Styx: Master of Shadows; an existing multiplatform title created by French developer Cyanide.
Although there is some unpleasant CGI and a few obvious sight references on show, the medium is not wasted as mere set dressing. It’s an unfortunate reality that female producers are rare in the video game industry and so Michèle’s managerial position immediately sets her apart. Watching Michèle go toe-to-toe with her insubordinate male employees only elicits her strength of character further and her fictional company, that creates salacious fantasy games for an audience of straight male players, is eerily reflective of both her current predicament as well as the criticisms still faced by real life developers today.
Clearly then, Elle is a film with a lot on its mind and even if the actions of its characters don’t in any way resemble what you’d expect from real people, it’s still easy to get caught up in the escalating drama. For such a transgressive foreign film to sparkle at the yearly awards ceremonies is, as the director says, quite open-minded of Hollywood and it’s certain that Elle will be a frontrunner when the Oscars rock up this February.
Elle is sure to fascinate and offend in equal measure. This is a hard film to recommend because of its disturbing subject matter, but if you can get past that you’ll discover an audacious comeback from Paul Verhoeven here; one with enough depth to warrant many repeat viewings and heated debates.
Elle is coming to select UK cinemas in March 2017.