Isabelle Huppert portrays a complicated, daring survivor.
One of the best films of the past year, Elle is a gripping psychological thriller, something of a Hitchcockian whodunit but with a feminist protagonist. Riveting yet puzzling, the film is guaranteed to provoke reactions — and not all of them sympathetic. The brutal rape sequence whose sounds open the movie accompanied by total blackness serves as more than a trigger warning; it’s a forceful opening volley, made all the more provocative by its sole witness (and the film’s initial image): a watchful cat (who is, perhaps, our surrogate). Once the masked attacker departs, the victim, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert, who just received a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama), picks herself up, matter-of-factly sweeps up the broken glass and takes a bath while curiously observing the red blood that colors the water. Clearly disavowing victimhood, Michèle also evinces a perverse sense of stimulation — if not by the act then by the potential to change the scenario, at least in her imagination. Michèle is a daring, complicated character, one that Huppert brilliantly creates in concert with the director, Paul Verhoeven.
After nearly two decades of toiling in Hollywood, achieving contentious and/or dubious successes with such films as RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, the Dutch director returns to Europe for Elle, along with the continent’s comparatively complex approaches to characters and sex. The salaciousness of Verhoeven’s Hollywood work is absent in this new effort, although perhaps not the prurience. Nevertheless, no matter how advanced you consider the moral framework of Elle, there is no getting past the knowledge that this is made by the same director who set tongues (and other protuberances) wagging with Sharon Stone’s crossed-leg display in Basic Instinct and Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon’s teasing lesbian scenes in Showgirls. There is no doubt that Huppert’s intelligence and acting skills inform Elle’s narrative.
Michèle is gradually revealed through her contacts with the other people in her life. She runs a gaming software company with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny), where she is seen arguing for a greater orgasmic penetration of a female character by a tentacled monster with her male programmers, some of whom clearly resent working for a woman. There’s her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), who has begun a relationship with a young woman (Vimala Pons) who’s hardly his intellectual equal, as well as her ineffectual son (Jonas Bloquet), who is being taken advantage of by his pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz). She’s also having a dispassionate affair with Anna’s husband, and her mother has tawdry affairs with gigolos. Then there’s the issue of her father’s heinous crime committed decades earlier, which hangs over the movie like a mysterious shroud or potential explanation for Michèle’s sex-positive but strangely pent-up emotions.
The film is not exactly a whodunit, because we learn the identity of the rapist halfway through Elle. It’s what the film grapples with that is its real subject: Michèle’s relationships with the ridiculous and threatening men in her life, the residual fallout from her childhood trauma, the quality of her female friendships and her bemused lobs at social mores. Michèle defies easy explanation; however, you will most definitely leave the theater talking about Elle.