Elle, dir. Paul Verhoeven │While in the past Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven pushed Hollywood boundaries with films such as Robocop, Starship Troupers or Basic Instinct, his first French-language movie Elle is by far his most troubling and uncomfortably funny piece of work. With just the right amount of perversion, violence, seduction, manipulation, and a drop of insanity, the director cooks up a twisted dark comedy/thriller that is beyond delicious.
Elle does not hesitate, or try to cut corners, and we are shown that from the very first moment. The very opening scene depicts a rape, an event that triggers a crazy game of cat and mouse. But what actually makes Elle so interesting and sickly fascinating are its characters, whose actions and reactions are so ridiculous at times that they make you question everyone’s mental health.
Isabelle Huppert plays the role of Michele Leblanc, the CEO of a video games company, who, after being assaulted, remains disturbingly calm, an attitude that automatically sets her apart from the usual victim. The rape is not followed by any of the reactions we are normally used to seeing in films: no mental breakdowns, no police investigation, and not even a single tear. Michele immediately cleans up the mess and continues her day in a normal fashion. She even casually delivers the news to her friends over dinner later the next day – “I suppose I was raped” – and their advice to inform the authorities is greeted with a categorical refusal.
The complexity of the character is clear from the start, and the pieces of information we get about Michele’s childhood help us gain a better understanding of her puzzling personality and lack of emotional response. She is exposed as the daughter of a renowned serial killer, imprisoned for more than 30 years, whom she refuses to see. Her mother is a rich old woman that hopelessly tries to be young by overusing beauty treatments and having young lovers. However, the revelation that Michele’s first marriage ended because of physical abuse makes us question once again why she allows this abuse to continue even after she learns the identity of her attacker. For her, the assault is an unfortunate event, but nothing to fuss too much about. This brings up a deeply unsettling question, and gives us a female character that is determined to protect herself, and even more, confront her problems without hesitation (and without the support of any man).
In addition to the brilliant performances, including those by Christian Berkel as Michele’s lover, and Anne Consigny as his wife and her best friend, this rollercoaster thriller shot on the Parisian streets benefits from a perfectly structured story and clever camera use. The film builds the tension up-and-down through its many intrigues, and Verhoeven adds flavour with occasional jump scares and giggles, captivating the viewer from beginning all the way to the very ending.
Elle is a film that gives no answers, but raises questions rarely asked: Who is the victim? Or better yet: Is there a victim? With an abundance of exaggerated situations and over the top characters, who nevertheless feel plausible at all times, the film manages to satirize some serious themes that most filmmakers are usually hesitant to approach. Verhoeven does walk on thin ice, but the ice never cracks, as he successfully introduces comedic moments in a very dark matter and manages to make even the audience question their beliefs and (ideas of) sanity. ■
Diana Alexandra Dumitrescu
│In cooperation with│
Elle│ Director: Paul Verhoeven │ Screenplay: David Birke │ Camera: Stéphane Fontaine │ Editing: Job te Burg │ Music: Anne Dudley │ Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny │ Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, Thanassis Karathanos, Kate Merkts, Diana Elbaum, Sebastien Delloye, François Touwaide │ Production Company: SBS Productions / Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion / France 2 Cinema │Country: France / Germany│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 131 min.│ International Sales: SBS Productions │ Festival: Cannes IFF 2016│Distribution: United International Pictures Sp z o.o.│