9.5 out of 10
Isabelle Huppert asMichèle Leblanc
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Over a black screen, we hear the sounds of a brutal attack. It is a visceral shock to see Michele (Isabelle Huppert) being raped by a masked assailant, and when the attack concludes and the rapist escapes, we see Michele quietly collect herself, clean up some broken plates, take a bath, and then go about her day. This is the beginning of Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s first French-language film, and as an audience we are stranded, not knowing what to think. Will Michele report her attacker? How will her friends and family react? Is Elle a revenge film, a drama, a jet black comedy? Paul Verhoeven has made many kinds of films throughout his career – films of unflinching violence, sex, and a sense of humor that seems almost cruel. All of the films he has made cannot prepare anyone for what he’s done here.
Elle played to a bit of controversy at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it did not escape that here at Fantastic Fest. It is a severely dividing film, and I can only attest to my reactions and thoughts, and wouldn’t assume anyone else’s. For many, Elle may be a difficult film to experience – Verhoeven’s violence is explicit, and the rape is brutal and, in my opinion, not shot to titillate but to disturb. It’s the aftermath of the rape, when we understand how Michele lives her life, with an absolute refusal to give power over her to anyone, including her own mother and her son, that Elle becomes divisive. Michele is not anyone’s idea of a victim – as an executive of a video game company, she knows how difficult it is to rise to the top of her profession, with the condescension of men and the jealous, casual sexism of those beneath her. In her childhood, Michele’s father was an orchestrator of horrific violence, and because of that terrible act, Michele lets no one in. No one. To do that is a compromise that she is unwilling to make. Michele is having an affair with her best friend’s husband, but it’s an affair of convenience, not love. Michele’s ex-husband still cares for her, but cannot live with her. Michele even keeps her own son at arm’s length, and her mother, who knows of Michele’s refusal to forgive her father, is unable to get inside her heart. No one can hurt her, not even her rapist; to do that would be an acknowledgment that these people have any control over her.
Elle is shocking, not merely because of the attack, but in the refusal of Michele, and the film, in reacting in a conventional manner. Elle has no interest in having these characters behave appropriately; instead Paul Verhoeven is looking for something truer and more human. Elle is a difficult movie to review because while masterfully made and acted, its point-of-view is skewed and unpredictable. Is Michele’s reaction (or lack of action) valid? Who is to decide that? As a male reviewer, any viewpoint I bring to this movie is coming from that perspective, and thus I can only react in the way that I understand. Elle doesn’t give easy answers, and Verhoeven refuses to give any kind of judgment, including to Michele’s rapist, which makes the film problematic at best. Elle isn’t interested in the politically-correct viewpoint; this film is designed to provoke and disturb, and it does that incredibly well. Elle is very well-crafted and shot, full of rich performances.
Isabelle Huppert is masterful, giving a performance that is magnetic, cold, calculating, and devastatingly emotional. Her veneer rarely cracks, but when it does, we see all her anger, fear, hatred, and crushing loneliness exposed, like a raw nerve, and Huppert brings all of that in her incredible performance. It reminded me, strongly, of Daniel Day-Lewis’s work – the character of Michele doesn’t feel acted, but lived in. Verhoeven sticks with Michele through the entire film, and because Verhoeven makes no judgments, like a fly on the wall, Elle forces us to view the film through our own filters and experiences, and what the film shows us isn’t an easy pill to swallow.
Elle is a rough film, and not for the casual viewer. It explores the darkest underbelly of human behavior – the lust, the violence, the base nature of humanity. Every reaction is valid, and in this age of trigger warnings and safe spaces, Elle and Paul Verhoeven refuse to participate, refuse to pull back. But Elle can also be incredibly funny, and often we laugh because we have no other way to react. The absurdity goes hand-in-hand with the anger, but it also fels honest and true. It feels like how a real person would react as opposed to a character going through the motions because the plot demands it.
Elle is thought-provoking, powerful, and brutal, and those who are uneasy about material dealing with rape should probably steer clear. But Huppert is tremendously strong, carrying all the brutality, the hatred, and the anger on her shoulders. She is incredible to see, and if you can handle the dark places Elle goes, her work here is a must-see. It wouldn’t be a Paul Verhoeven film if it didn’t explore the darkest chambers of the human heart, but Elle also feels like a step forward for him. He’s often accused of being exploitative and venal, and any validity to those accusations is strictly in the eye of the beholder. Elle feels like Verhoeven’s answer to those indictments, and the result is challenging and controversial, and one of Paul Verhoeven’s best films.