UK Release Date: 10th March 2017
Runtime: 131 minutes
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: David Birke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Anne Consigny, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Laurent Lafitte, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre
Synopsis: A woman who is sexually assaulted in her home reacts with bizarre detachment to the crime against her and quietly goes about finding out who the perpetrator was, but it’s unclear whether she’s actually out for revenge.
Paul Verhoeven has marked himself out as one of the most provocative voices in cinema, whether it’s in the blood-soaked satire of RoboCop and Starship Troopers or in erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct. His latest film Elle has the look and feel of an elegant European arthouse movie and couldn’t be further from the chaotic anarchy of his earlier American work. It’s a work of exquisite control, albeit one that is every bit as morally murky and ideologically questionable as anything Verhoeven has ever made before. Elle is a complex and infuriating work that dares you to engage with its toughest material, as much as it may make your skin crawl.
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home by a masked assailant, but refuses to call the police afterwards due to a bad experience in her past and instead goes about her life as normal. She is currently at work on a violent video game with her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), while engaging in an emotionally empty affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel). She also embarks on a tentative flirtation with suave neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), who is married to a devout Christian woman (Virginie Efira). Meanwhile, Michèle is forced to deal with her useless son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and mother Irène (Judith Magre), who seems to think she’s much younger than she is.
It’s tough to categorise Elle, as it’s a movie that takes real joy in defying categorisation and challenging its audience – morally as well as thematically. The narrative flies off in unusual directions that are as potentially troubling and unwelcome as they are unexpected. What initially seems to set out its stall as a rape-revenge thriller plays out as something far stranger – part commentary on bourgeois French society and part jet black comedy based around the sort of material that probably shouldn’t be the subject of this kind of humour. Elle is a movie steeped in contradictions, where its greatest triumphs are also the things that prevent it from quite holding together.
Thankfully, Verhoeven has one ace in his hand in the shape of Isabelle Huppert, who delivers a phenomenal performance. It’s a work of exquisite control, portraying a difficult character with nuance and surprising humour, despite her icy persona. Scenes in which Huppert confronts her overly glamorous mother, who is dating a much younger man, are sublimely nasty and showcase just how cut off her character is from the rest of the world. This is a woman forced to deal with the demons of her past who spends her days asking for more “orgasmic convulsions” in her company’s violent video games and her evenings emotionlessly shagging her best friend’s husband. A performer with less grace and elegance than Huppert could’ve made this role a really unsettling caricature.
Much of what doesn’t work in Elle comes down to Verhoeven’s directorial choices. He helms the entire film with a sense of cold detachment that prevents the audience from ever engaging too deeply with the material. Given the remarkably odd character bonds that form in the final third, this feels like a poor choice as it keeps the audience at arm’s length from the film, when what Verhoeven really wants is for them to feel uncomfortably close to the characters and their decisions. He also directs the assault scene, which is revisited in different guises throughout, with a peculiarly sleazy and often ambiguous eye that does a disservice to the material. It’s as if he can’t resist his urges.
That said, Elle is certainly an intriguing movie and it’s often as if Verhoeven is almost daring people to condemn his work. It is a film that uses Huppert’s impressive performance to create a character who forces people to question their preconceived ideas for how rape victims act, even if her response often feels less than realistic and occasionally truly bizarre. It’s only his essential Verhoeven tendencies that occasionally nudge the film into areas that are problematic more than they are thought-provoking and the unusually chilly tone makes it difficult to ever get fully involved.
Pop or Poop?
Paul Verhoeven is working with one of the year’s best performances in Elle and he builds an interesting and oddly compelling film around Isabelle Huppert’s elegant central turn. The film is an impressively unsettling tale with a deeply odd tone, but occasionally frustrating directorial tics and a tough moral message that is too important to be left ambiguous prevent this from being the glossy arthouse masterpiece some have claimed it to be.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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