Writer: David Birke (screenplay), Philippe Dijan (novel)
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Christian Berkel, Laurent Lafitte, Lucas Prisor, Raphaël Lenglet
Running time: 130mins
What’s the story: After being raped in her home, businesswoman Michele seemingly puts the incident aside to calmly continue with her busy life. When her attacker contacts her again, a power play ensues.
What’s the verdict: Well ensconced in his 70s, Paul Verhoeven has lost none of the provocative audience baiting that has seen him produce great movies (Black Book, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Katie Tippel, The 4th Man) and dreadful ones (Basic Instinct, Showgirls).
Elle is a great movie. A great, difficult movie. Based on the novel by Philippe Dijan (writer of Betty Blue), this is layered, disturbing, compelling and funny. This latter point is what has infuriated detractors; is there space for laughter in a movie about rape?
Isabelle Huppert is excellent as the petite but resilient Michele. In her busy days she balances co-running a computer game company with best friend Anna (Consigny), and looking after her disappointing son Vincent (Bloquet) and his bad-tempered pregnant girlfriend (Isaaz), plus her ex-husband (Berling). Not to mention battling with her free-spirited mother (Magre) and her latest gigolo (Lenglet).
Michele also has to manage the continued fallout from a violent incident that occurred in her childhood. A multi-tasker able to compartmentalise, the rape is something she puts away, much to the consternation of her friends.
But, when her attacker refuses to stay out of her life, a whodunit ensues as Michele attempts to ensnare him. Potential suspects are many, Michele having clashed with myriad colleagues in her male-dominated profession. Is it the always-angry Kurt (Prisor)? Anna’s grabby husband Robert (Berkel)? Michele’s suave neighbor (Lafitte)? Her ex? Someone seeking revenge from her past?
Paul Verhoeven has often been charged with eroticising sexual assault, so important to say that here the depiction of rape and comedy are kept apart. But, also true to say laughs of the darkest kind are had from the reactions of Michele’s friends to her apparent blasé attitude, plus her own behaviour.
Whether this is offensive or not depends on how much of a character study you consider Elle to be. The filmmakers would argue they cannot speak for all women, just the main character of their movie. Making this more problematic is that the director, writer and author of the original novel all happen to be men.
Counter-argument is that Huppert is no easily manipulated fool. Delivering a spectacular performance, besting even her work in The Piano Teacher, Huppert depicts Michele as a fascinating character.
Intelligent, cool, reserved, but also contradictory and liable to reveal past secrets with no preamble, part of the film’s frisson is in observing how Michelle will respond to the attack. Awards should shower down, but for a film like this that is unlikely.
Verhoeven juggles disparate plot threads with the energy of a man half his age, treating the family squabbles like some Ricky Gervais-like nightmare comedy and the darker story aspects almost like a Ruth Rendell mystery.
Motivations will be left unsatisfyingly murky for some audiences, some of the broader humour seems stuck in the 1970s and at 130 minutes this has a least one subplot too many.
But, a reminder we need iconoclasts like Mr. V to remind us of cinema’s power to ignite passionate debate. And to annoy.
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