Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira
Elle was viewed at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Regardless of interpretation, you should be able to agree on this basic truth: Elle is a classy, intelligent, female-driven sexual thriller with slight flavours of satire - a film that manages to be deftly entertaining while asking dead serious questions at the same time.
The first image of Paul Verhoeven’s scandalously fantastic new film, Elle, beautifully establishes the tone and central ideas it elaborates on over its seemingly short 130 minutes. In a bourgeois Parisian townhouse, a cat watches with haughty detachment the violent rape of its owner. We don’t see the rape of the cat’s owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) - at least not yet - we only see the cat, blinking slowly and disinterestedly, as the initial disturbing scene unfolds before its eyes. From the get-go, this striking feline image reflects Elle’s unwavering commitment to representing the shock of violence and the ensuing nontraditional way the character deals with that violence.
Before we know anything about Michèle, we know she is a survivor of the grisly rape. As the film unfolds, we learn more and more about Elle’s captivatingly ambiguous heroine. We learn that she is a higher-up at a company that designs video games, and that she experiences aggression and harassment at work. We learn that she has an adult son from a failed marriage whom she helps out from time to time but towards whom she does not seem particularly affectionate. We learn she has a sturdy network of friends, professional and otherwise. We learn she has a mysterious past that makes her resentful of her parents, a past she would rather not discuss.
Part of what makes Elle so watchable is its strange mélange of tones. It has the talky Parisian bourgeois elegance of a Rohmer film, a mode that exists in the sombre shadow of a profoundly dark sexual power play - a kind that hasn’t been used to such great effect since Polanski’s golden age of the '60s. Like that director’s Repulsion (1965) or Cul-de-Sac (1966), Elle plays like a great thriller without abandoning its art house class. The mystery surrounding the identity of Michèle’s assailant establishes a very modern air of suspense; it’s a sort of serious whodunit for a post “Gamergate” society. Scenes like the one in which Michèle returns to her house one night to find a cryptic explicit message typed on her computer will leave you on the edge of your seat. Anne Dudley’s anxious yet unobtrusive string score enhances this effect nicely. At times, Elle even sparkles with a devilish wit - at one point Michèle initiates a rough sexual encounter with her neighbour in his basement as her clueless aimless son sleeps fitfully on a couch upstairs. Cutting between the house’s levels in this sequence, Verhoeven manages to horrify us, make us laugh, and then horrify us again when we realise we are laughing at such a disturbing scene; Elle is replete with genre-bending sequences like this that can stir complicated successions of emotions within the viewer - a quality that makes the film endlessly fascinating to watch.
Though violent and unsettlingly bizarre, Elle miraculously manages to stay remarkably tasteful. When rape scenes occur in Elle, Verhoeven treats them with the same angry yet thoughtful consideration as Michèle. In fact, thanks to several artistic choices made by Verhoeven, and screenwriter David Birke (working in adaptation from a novel by Philippe Djian), we see the rape scenes through Michèle’s perspective. As I mentioned, the opening moment leaves most of the violence to the imagination as the cat witnesses the horrible scene. Later, we do see the full scene, but filtered through Michèle’s memory in a flashback. Aligning the rape scenes with Michèle’s perspective is crucial to Elle’s success: we are not fascinated by the violence; we are fascinated by a survivor’s reaction to the violence.
And, of course, Elle’s tastefulness owes much to Isabelle Huppert, who has been courageously playing fraught characters since at least as early as 1978 in Chabrol’s Violette - a courageousness that only intensified in the 20th century with films like The Piano Teacher (2001) and Abuse of Weakness (2013). In Elle, she plays Michèle as a sort of übermensch (or perhaps übermädchen is more accurate?). With one eyebrow perpetually raised with suspicion, derision, or annoyance, Huppert plays Michèle as a sort of beautiful paradox: she is a character in the throws of frustration regarding her own past, professional life, and victimisation, yet also a character who effortlessly transcends those opposing forces with terse cutting remarks or glares as disinterested and superior as those of her cat.
The joys of Elle extend well beyond the closing credits; it’s a movie that smartly leaves many questions unanswered: What is Michele’s relationship to her family and her past? What is the true nature of her relationship with her rapist? Are the circumstances in the film’s shocking ending within or beyond her control? Try to see Elle with a friend; providing your own hypotheses to these questions and listening to others will no doubt enhance your appreciation of this rich, unusual film. Still, regardless of interpretation, you should be able to agree on this basic truth: Elle is a classy, intelligent, female-driven sexual thriller with slight flavours of satire - a film that manages to be deftly entertaining while asking dead serious questions at the same time; if this strange recipe of elements doesn’t make for a great movie, then I don’t know what does.
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