Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Laffite, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Christian Berkel and Jonas Bloquet.
Michèle seems indestructible. Head of a successful video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. However her life takes a dramatic turn when she is raped in the security of her own home by an unknown assailant. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game; a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.
Exactly twenty five years ago, Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven opened the Festival de Cannes with his scathing sexual drama Basic Instinct (1992). In 2016, the cult filmmaker returns to the festival circuit with an equally complex and distinctly unsettling glance into forbidden fantasy with Elle. However unlike the sheer exploitation of that Sharon Stone sequence, here he maintains a surprisingly deft handle on confrontational tone and form; producing a wonderfully corrosive and endlessly captivating thrill-ride.
If you didn’t know already, Isabelle Huppert is quite frankly the finest actress at work today. She is completely transformative in virtually every role she acquires, and the densely carved and psychologically challenging work here is worthy of serious awards attention. Although that is not going to happen, because at the barest of bones, Elle is a black comedy about sexual assault, and worryingly it screens beautifully.
Verhoeven is no doubt brazen to make such a piece, but he and scriptwriter David Birke (adapting Philippe Djian’s acclaimed novel) have produced something far greater in magnitude and weight than merely a lurid title on the neglected shelves of your down-and-out rental store. Michèle is raped in the opening frames – mere seconds after the introductory credits have screened – and soon after, the event is seemingly forgotten. She dusts herself off, sweeps up some broken china and takes a bath before heading out to a sophisticated restaurant with a gaggle of friends. Even in the extended aftermath, the incident is secondary to her day-to-day living. She organises for her locks to be changed whilst rushing into a board meeting at her business, and still remains complicit in her affair with a married man.
Yet the dexterity of Huppert’s performance offers a keen reminder that everything in her bourgeois world could change within a breath. One minute she is scornful and acidic; blurting out gallows humour and revelling in the power of disrupting, the very next, a tightly wound spring; lips gently quivering as silently fears for her security and dignity. Huppert has maintained such a prolonged career on-screen – far longer than this author has even resided on this planet – that she can physically convey contrasting emotion with the subtlest of movements.
These finite alterations are beautifully paired with the bleeding genre shifts which seep from Elle‘s wounds. Clocking in at a handsome 130 minutes, Verhoeven has a prolonged period to catapult his spectators through the Parisian landscape, and he does so with maniacal intent. This is undoubtedly his most complete and thematically assured work, exercising the tonal bandwidths of fiendish horror, scolding satire, and even frothy domestic comedy. The juxtapositions are undeniably alarming, but they work marvellously. One moment you’ll be ruthlessly cackling at one of many venomous dialogue exchanges, the next squirming as you alongside Michèle attempt to evade the persistently twisted assailant.
Elle has been criticised by some for glamourising sexual violence, but by dwelling on this singularity devalues the project as a whole. The rape sequences are quite rightly uncomfortable; made more so by Birke’s exquisite character design. The more we journey with Michèle, the deeper her layers become, and indeed our relationship with her. Verhoeven’s latest is fabulously audacious and ambitious, avoiding the easy psychology and obvious motivations of the traditional rape revenge saga for something far more textured and tactile. It has a sophisticated approach to the many shades of the human condition, and its longing for desire and control.
This is bracingly intelligent filmmaking which refuses to provide essentialist securities and conclusions. Instead the pairing of Verhoeven and Huppert opt for a breathless and supercharged voyage into the darkest of fringes, and do so with almighty gusto and intent. You’ve never seen anything quite like Elle, and that’s the biggest compliment one can give.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★