Elle – Film Review by Emily Elphinstone
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: David Birke (screenplay), Philippe Djian (novel)
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
Never one to shy away from challenging films, director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instict, Total Recall) returns with the much talked about Elle, his first film in the French language. Plunging the audience immediately into the depths; the film opens with a dark screen, allowing no escape from the violent sounds of sexual assault. Even after revealing the scene, passively witnessed by her cat, Verhoeven refuses to offer a sympathetic view; just as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) refuses to play the victim after the masked assailant departs. Rather than weeping or calling the police, Michèle sweeps up the broken crockery, washes the blood from her body, and continues her life; only revealing the trauma coolly at a dinner party.
It may be unsettling, but this disconnect between drama and cool passivity is the source of the film’s power: It is a thriller, comedy, and stylish Parisian drama; but moves so sharply between genres that it remains difficult to pin down. In fact, the humorous elements only enhance the horror and sense of isolation in the wake of such a trauma; shown in the moment a bottle of champagne arrives just as she breaks the news, which is received with the wonderful response ‘Wait a few minutes before popping it.’ She may be carrying on her life, but she has certainly not moved on; continually appraising those around her for signs that they may be the perpetrator.
As the title may suggest, the heart of the film is the heroine herself, played by the inimitable Isabelle Huppert in one of her most powerful performances to date. Huppert’s Michèle is a fascinating character: Alluring, thoroughly human, but not necessarily likeable. As the head of a video game company, she sells games that appear to condone the sexual violence she is victim to; and is engaged in an affair with her best friend’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel). Though there might be questions of a male writer and director creating a film which blur the lines between sexuality and sexual violence; Michèle is a strong woman surrounded by men who fail to live up to expectations; whether it is bitter employee Kurt (Lucas Prisor), ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), or immature son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who is expecting a child with difficult girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz.)
Verhoeven may be Dutch, but this is a thoroughly French film in the best of senses; right down to a dinner party which includes her ex-husband’s new (younger) girlfriend, and the gigolo her mother plans to marry. Ultimately Elle is as intelligent and witty as it is disturbing; and will certainly keep you thinking long after the credits role. It’s a troubling story, but there’s a reason why it has become one of the most talked about films of the year.