Is it a feminist tract, an antifeminist screed, a willful provocation, a condemnation or possibly even a celebration of violence against women? You could claim any of those antithetical things about Elle. This is a movie without a thesis. It just wants to rattle your bones, brain and possibly other, lower parts.
The French film earned star Isabelle Huppert a best actress Golden Globe earlier this month, in the drama category. Dramatic, Elle is. Yet it’s also a darker-than-black comedy brimming with casual, sophisticated perversities. The movie is gleefully twisted.
Take that as a warning or a recommendation. Personally, I was thrilled by a work so willing, from scene to scene, to shake up our expectations … though I’m not sure it would succeed without Huppert’s central, astounding performance.
In maybe her most challenging role in a career built entirely on challenging roles, she plays Michèle Leblanc. She’s a successful Parisian businesswoman whose business happens to be the production of sexually violent video games. Imagine a CG-animated Game of Thrones peppered with Japanese Manga tentacle porn, and you’ll get the idea.
She runs her company alongside longtime friend Anna (Anne Consigny). Together, they mock the young, geek-guy programmers who pull their punches when animating the latest game’s sex depictions. Reviewing a beta scene prior to the public launch, Michèle scolds them, “The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid.”
After hours, Michèle often dines with Anna, Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) and her own ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling). And she argues with their adult son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) about the dreadful young woman he’s dating, who’s pregnant with, maybe, his child.
We don’t meet any of these people for a while in Elle. The first character we see isn’t even human. That’s a cat, watching passively as its owner, Michèle, is brutally raped on the floor of her house by a man wearing a black mask.
“You didn’t have to claw his eyes, but scratch him, at least,” Michèle chides her pet later, in a quietly humorous moment.
Yes, humorous. Elle prepares us, in the wake of her sexual assault, to experience a crime procedural, a mystery or revenge narrative. Maybe a Gallic I Spit on Your Grave. Yet it has no interest in taking us down any familiar narrative paths. This is not a normal movie. Michèle is not a normal person.
At its core, Elle is a character study of a ball-busting woman (sometimes, literally). You admire her for her strength, but would want to avoid her in real life. She does what she wants, gets what she wants. She’s a destroying goddess, a French Kali. The dramatic throughline is Michèle’s sexually unexpected response to her assault, and how she goes about identifying then dealing with her rapist. I’ll leave you to discover how that unfolds.
Just as interesting, though, is learning what made Michèle the woman she is, even before her violation. That fascinating backstory gives Elle a distinct, media-aware spin and a very idiosyncratic texture. There’s a lot going on.
For me, the movie’s highlight is a Christmas dinner, blithely arranged by Michèle. As the French are well known for their theatrical farces, here’s a worthy, extreme 21st-century descendant. At this dinner, an inappropriate engagement is announced, Michèle rubs her stockinged foot against her seatmate’s crotch, a couple of guests primly watch the Pope’s midnight mass on TV, and someone collapses and has to be ambulanced to the ho-ho-hospital.
Director Paul Verhoeven prankishly juxtaposes imagery of the holiday season (a life-size nativity scene near Michèle’s house) with the movie’s secular sexcapades. Known in the eighties and nineties for the slick, seductive sleaze of movies like Basic Instinct and his ahead-of-their-time bleak sci-fi comedies about fascist ideologies, RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven’s career hit the skids in the States with Showgirls and Hollow Man. Both were tarred as misogynistic.
He had a nice bounce-back with 2006’s Black Book, filmed in his native Netherlands. His career there, as in the U.S., has been both lauded and demonized. Example: the 1973 drama Turkish Delight was declared an outrage by some Dutch critics, but became the Netherlands’ most successful film. Like him or loathe him, the man has always been a skilled provocateur. (See also: The 4th Man and Spetters.)
Elle will likewise put viewers through a push-me-pull-you response as it whips between mordant comedy and startling bursts of violence. The only thing keeping us grounded is Huppert’s unflappable performance of a woman who knows she, herself, is performing.
During that horrible Christmas dinner, Michèle chats with one of her guests about a famous newspaper photo of herself as a 10-year-old, snapped when she was witness to a bloody crime. “My empty stare in the photo is terrifying,” she says gravely.
Then, she smiles. Turning tragedy into a joke, Huppert/ Michèle remind us that this is a woman who will survive at all costs.
Elle. With Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. In French with subtitles. Rated R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language. 130 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and Lefont Sandy Springs.