A successful businesswoman gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tracks down the unknown man who raped her.
It’s hard to imagine a film like ‘Elle’ being greenlit in Hollywood due to its controversial subject matter, and indeed it wasn’t, which led director Paul Verhoeven to make the film in Europe, casting French stalwart Isabelle Huppert in the leading role that was turned down by several high profile Hollywood actresses. In its willingness to push boundaries and explore dark, taboo subjects, ‘Elle’ is a credit to European cinema, and at the same time a criticism of Hollywood’s often stuffy approach to material that steps outwith the generally conceived ideas of acceptability. It’s also pretty hard to imagine anyone in the central role beyond the fearless and imperious Isabelle Huppert, who as rape victim Michèle Leblanc, refuses to let her ordeal define her.
The film begins with a brutal sexual assault on its lead character by a masked assailant and this visceral attack is returned to several times throughout the runtime when events trigger Michèle’s memories of the attack. After the initial assault, Michèle goes for a shower, cleans up the mess and then carries on with her day like nothing has happened. She continues working in her job as a successful video game executive, doesn’t involve the police and she chooses to handle things in her own way, the opposite of how we would expect someone to react to a horrific sexual assault, but Michèle isn’t your ordinary women. As the film starts to flesh out Michèle’s disturbing childhood and her character, we start to understand more about the choices she makes and between Huppert’s performance and Verhoeven’s master craftsmanship, the film explores some dark avenues superbly.
‘Elle’ is less concerned about who is tormenting Michele, and more interested in exploring the psychological ramifications of her ordeal. In many ways, her steadfast refusal to be marginalised to the status of victim is about control, and she’s determined not to cede control to the man who attacked her. Verhoeven also starts to dig into even darker territory in confronting the fact that as fucked up and dysfunctional as it may be, Michèle derived some sort of pleasure from her experiences, and it refuses to compromise in its depiction of this. What makes this so remarkable is that ‘Elle’ is also a very funny movie and Huppert is hilarious at times, and this light approach contrasts superbly with the darker undertones of Michèle’s cat and mouse game with her tormenter.
‘Elle’ is a provocative psychological thriller that handles dark, impulsive themes with a deft touch, and in Isabelle Huppert’s central performance, features one of the performances of the year. It’s equally funny, deeply disturbing and full of suspense and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Christian Berkel, Anne Consigny, Virginie Efira, Laurent Lafitte, Charles Berling, Alice Isaaz, Judith Magre, Vimala Pons, Jonas Bloquet, Lucas Prisor, Arthur Mazet and Raphael Lenglet