Director- Paul Verhoeven
Reviewed May 17, 2017
Certain to evoke both disgust and intrigue from viewers brave enough to watch it all the way through, and hopefully ponder the character dynamics, Elle is a titillating French film that was showered with heaps of praise upon its release in 2016. Controversial without question, in large part by the films main character, Elle will undoubtedly divide film fans- some heralding the picture as greatness, others detesting it as too exploitive. Not an easy watch by any measure, one aspect is cemented in truth-Isabelle Huppert gives a fantastic performance in a complex and perverse role.
Unique even in its first scene, Michele Leblanc (Huppert) is a ruthless, alpha, business woman, who is raped and beaten by an intruder in her lavish Paris home. The violent act occurs in the very first scene immediately giving the film an “in your face” presence. When the rapist, who wears a ski mask, flees, Michele shakes off the incident with nary an emotional scar. Through backstory we learn that years ago Michele’s father brutally murdered many people and is imprisoned for life. Michele’s mother is an aging glamour girl who hires sexy male escorts. Michele’s son is engaged to a domineering pregnant woman, and her ex-husband is dating a younger woman. Michele lives a complicated life.
At first Michele, for all intents and purposes, seems like a sympathetic character and we feel her pain as she is taunted by a woman in a coffee shop for her fathers past deeds. To say nothing of her rape, we cringe when Michele hears noises and imagines the masked intruder returning to rape again, empathizing with the character. When Michele is harassed by the mystery man- he sends coy notes and leaves “gifts” in her home- we are scared for her. However, as the film goes along Michele’s obsession and other questionable actions, make the character tough to like. I also began to wonder if, perhaps, the entire film was being imagined or dreamed in Michele’s head!
As a fan of acclaimed film director, Claude Chabrol, Elle appears to be heavily influenced by him. Director Paul Verhoeven certainly must have studied his works. No slouch himself- female empowering sex films such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls that he directed, come to mind, he gives Elle a sleek and sexy feel. The fact that it is set in romantic Paris somehow helps and also makes the film glamorous and cultured. Verhoeven even weaves a whodunit into the story for much of the film until the rapist is revealed in shocking fashion.
If the film had ended with the big reveal, this would have made for a compelling, if not mainstream Lifetime television type film, but Elle really takes off from this point. Michele, already fancying her handsome rapist, actually begins a macabre relationship with the man, going so far as to act out the rape again- her fantasies coming true! This story turn may repel the average viewer, but to me, this turns the film into a completely left of center, layered, psychologically themed story. Elle is not a revenge tale or a film about a victimized woman, it is so much more.
What a dynamic performance Ruppert gives and here is why- she successfully makes Michele both sympathetic and reviled. Besides the aforementioned rape complexities, she despises her mother, sleeps with her best friends husband, and in a scene which arguably makes Michele cross the line in reprehensible behavior, she confesses her affair to best friend Anna, just when Anna is at her happiest moment- this is downright cruel! So, no, the audience does not completely sympathize with this character, but how layered does this make the character and what a treat for actress Ruppert to sink her teeth into a character like this one.
With a wounded yet cold central character-Elle-in large part thanks to exceptional direction by Verhoeven and a brilliant portrayal by Huppert, takes Elle into largely unchartered territory and brave waters to create a film that will make the viewer both think and loathe. Part nymphomaniac, wounded bird, and vicious shark, Elle contains a complex and memorable leading character.