At its dark, oddly humorous heart director Paul Verhoven’s thriller is a about a wealthy woman’s response to trauma. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), owner of a successful video-game company, lives alone in a house in a nice part of Paris, has respectable neighbours and a complicated relationship with her son. One night Michèle opens the French windows to let in her cat, and to her surprise, a man in a balaclava forces himself into her nicely appointed dining room. He then proceeds to brutally rape her.
Michèle organises her life in the same way that she controls the video games her company releases. With steel-nerves Michèle single-mindedly tracks down her assailant, armed with self-protection and unusual sexual desire. To say Michèle is a victim would only extend to the police report that she refuses to file. The rapist returns. The repeated violation scenes are violent, certainly disturbing to watch, but they are the only moments in the film when the super-controlled Michèle is dominated.
Is this a feminist film? Yes. And no. Seen from the point of view of a woman who is in total charge of her response, there is a resounding yes. Yet it is also worth considering whether a crime as horrific as rape should be exploited to make gripping entertainment. Unsurprisingly Elle (which didn’t win an award) was the most controversial film at Cannes this year.
Huppert’s glacial performance, the ‘still motion’ of her body and icy-comic flick of her eyes succeeds in turning our view of desire and manipulation upside down: we are shocked and we are fascinated. Michèle’s retort to the attack is to enjoy the anger and the thrill of the pursuit, and when she identifies her attacker her response is unconventional. This is explained by Verhoven’s backstory detailing Michèle’s childhood trauma.
Verhoven uses slick thriller devices reminiscent of Basic Instinct to make Elle compelling cinema, while Huppert’s resistance to acting cliché darkens Verhoven’s ink even more, keeping us in a state of genuine unease. And no more so than the one scene which indicates that on a sub-conscious level Michèle knew her attacker’s identity way before the film’s climax.
Director: Paul Verhoven (2016)
Interesting to note:
Elle is Paul Verhoven’s first French film. He was unable to make it in Hollywood due to its violent nature. The script is based on Philippe Dijian’s novel ‘Oh.’ Dijian also wrote the novel, ’37°2 Le Matin’ (Betty Blue)