Directed by: Paul Verhoeven.
Written by: David Birke based on the novel by Philippe Djian.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Michèle Leblanc), Laurent Lafitte (Patrick), Anne Consigny (Anna), Charles Berling (Richard Leblanc), Virginie Efira (Rebecca), Judith Magre (Irène Leblanc), Christian Berkel (Robert), Jonas Bloquet (Vincent), Alice Isaaz (Josie), Vimala Pons (Hélène), Raphaël Lenglet (Ralf), Arthur Mazet (Kevin), Lucas Prisor (Kurt), Hugo Conzelmann (Philipp Kwan), Stéphane Bak (Omar).
Leave it to Paul Verhoeven to come along and make the year’s most incendiary and provocative film – a film that likely has something in it to offend most viewers. Yet, as with much of Verhoeven’s work, all that controversy and offensive material on the surface, masks something deeper, darker and perhaps even more disturbing and unsettling – something that when you wrestle with it, will not leave you alone. No matter what you think of Elle, you are not going to forget it – and it’s impossible to deny that Isabelle Huppert delivers one of the best performances of the year in the film, and one of the best performances of her long, brilliant career. Whether, like me, you think the movie is one of the year’s best, or you hate it, there’s no denying that.
From the opening frames of Elle, Verhoeven is trying to shock and provoke. The film opens mid-rape – and yet it opens on a black screen and then flashes to a cat calmly watching the action – in the audience, all we hear are undeniably sexual grunting, yet whether those noises are the result of rape or just sex, we don’t know until Verhoeven finally shows us what’s happening – as a masked man gets off of Michele (Huppert), and runs out the nearby door. Michelle gets up, cleans herself off, takes a shower – washing away the blood, and then calmly orders sushi on the phone. Her dim bulb 20-something son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is coming over for dinner, and she needs to be prepared. Later, when out to dinner with her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), and her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel) – who Michelle is currently having an affair with – she calmly announces that she was raped in her home – but makes it sounds like no big deal. The other three people at the table don’t quite know what to do or say (Robert, thoughtfully, asks the waiter to delay bringing the campaign over). Michelle says she has been to the doctor – but will not go to the police, that she will never go to the police because of something in her past that they are all aware of – but will won’t be until fairly later in the movie. There’s multiple other subplots and characters – her son’s bossy, bitchy girlfriend, her ex-husband’s much younger new girlfriend, the video game Michelle’s company is working on – but cannot seem to nail the graphics to make the sexual violence more disturbing, the conflicts with some of the younger men at her office, her mother, and her gigolo boyfriend new neighbors, etc. Michelle is simply too busy to deal with being raped right now – so she pushes it off to the side – or thinks she did. No matter what she thinks, she is traumatized by what happened – and ends up dealing with it in surprising way.
The screenplay for Elle was written by David Dirke, for a novel by Philippe Dijan – although the original movie was going to be set in America, and this be a Hollywood production. Verhoeven insisted the action be moved back to France (where the novel took place) – saying that no American actress could do the role as well as Huppert. Whether true or not, his instincts were certainly right – because Huppert’s performance is one of the year’s best. There is something old Hollywood about the way Michelle deals with everything – like Joan Crawford in Mildred Piece, who simply shoves down her feelings, and soldiers on because what else is she going to do. This is a performance in which every movement, every little flicker of a smile means something – sometimes multiple things. Yet, as much as she doesn’t think what happened affects her – she does grow a little coarser, a little blunter, a little more courageous. Eventually, we will learn who raped Michelle – it isn’t overly surprising, because Verhoeven isn’t making a whodunit here – and what happens after that is perhaps even more shocking and surprising – some would say offensive – although I don’t think so, because of the way Verhoeven and Huppert dive into this one woman’s personality. Victims of rape often act out in strange ways – and that’s certainly true to Michelle.
It was smart of Verhoeven to move the action to France in another way as well. All of Verhoeven’s films act as a satire – a commentary on the industry or country that produced them. His over the top Hollywood films – Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man – are all “Hollywood films” (quotation marks needed), where their shiny, flashy surface, mask a deeper commentary on the system that made them. In Elle, Verhoeven is doing something similar to European art films – specifically French films – twisting some scenes just enough to show their ridiculousness. The surface of Elle is nowhere near as flashy as say, Showgirls – but that’s precisely the point.
Elle is Verhoeven’s first film in a decade – following his masterpiece, Black Book – where the Dutch filmmaker returned to his country for the first time in decades for a film, and dug into that countries past with the Nazis, and found something disturbing – well still making a perfect, Hitchcock-ian thriller. Had that been Verhoeven’s final cinematic statement – it would have been fitting. But in Elle, the old man shows he’s not done yet, and has crafted a shocking film that will offend and engross everyone who sees it – and in Huppert, finds the perfect choice to lead the audience down that rabbit hole.