NYFF Film Review: ELLE
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to disturbing sexual thrillers. You may have heard of some of his screen credits: Basic Instinct and Showgirls. He’s also well versed in the sci-fi genre you probably also remember: RoboCop and Total Recall. In his latest film, Elle, which screened at the New York Film Festival, he meshes these two genres to eye-popping results.
The movie is not at all science fiction—it is strictly speaking a dramatic piece—but you still wont’ believe your eyes. And if people call it a masterpiece it’s perhaps because it is unique in its disturbing mettle, and that’s a good thing.
Elle is France’s submission to the Academy Awards. The film stars French icon Isabelle Huppert, and it has played to no small controversies to global audiences. It even has a bone to throw to devoted fanboys—the main character is the founder and director of a videogame company that is developing a game that revolves around tentacle porn. But, like any good French film, the topics that underlie Elle are far more sinister and darker than that lighthearted profession may suggest.
The first thing you experience when the movie begins is the sound of a horrendous crashing of cutlery, and as the scene comes into light you see Huppert’s character Michele being graphically raped by an assailant clad in black. When the episode is over, Michele methodically washes herself, cleans up and goes on with her day. The behavior will no doubt be shocking and even abhorrent to most viewers. That is the entire controversial point of this poignant film: the victim turns the tide around, and seeks to victimize her attacker. I can’t imagine a more unconventional approach to the incendiary topic but there you have it.
So Michele achieves the ultimate empowerment not only by not letting her misfortune bring her down as a successful business woman, but by methodically figuring out who her attacker is and trying to confront and turn the tables on him. It’s enthralling if somewhat revolting. She later on admits that the relationship is sick and twisted, but the movie is superb at making it somehow believable in between the nervous laughs. No doubt, it will ruffle feathers in America, given the recent social tension behind discussions of the tricky subject. But if that is not the mark of a movie worth at least discussing, I don’t know what is.
What remains beyond that controversy is a fascinating character study of French and modern culture. Michel is a post-modern woman, too busy to be bothered by feminism but the obvious embodiment of it, someone who goes about her day with no frills while dealing with the eye-rolling existence of all the nincompoops around her—from her sexually aggressive elderly mother, her pathetic ex-husband, and her failure-to-launch child. She faces male threats at the office and in the bedroom, not to mention in the form of her attacker-turned-stalker. But none of it fazes her, she is deadpan in her determination. You can’t stop looking at it, and there are no histrionics.
Sex abounds, as it does in French cinema, oozing out of the pores of each character. And these individuals are all amusing in their various degrees of exposition—but none can compare to the forceful and determined Michele that Huppert portrays. An Academy Award nomination is not out of the question (she’s already raking up the Critic nods as awards season gets under way). It’s strange to watch a movie you feel is more and more ridiculous at every turn and be fascinated by it, drawn into it for its perversion, its morbid tones, its utter brilliance.
And if you are wondering, yes, Michele eventually tells her friends about the assault. Still, she refuses to go to the police because, as it turns out, she was scarred by another traumatic episode as a child—one that has followed her all her life and made her the resolute woman that she is today. The plot thickens, as they say, and rape gives way to mayhem and murder. It is not for the faint of heart.
Like in a good sci-fi flick, or even like in Basic Instinct as realistic. Twisted is more like it. But Verhoven’s talent is that he makes us coquettishly wonder “what if,” forcing us to indulge that little fantasy—which is unwittingly and disturbingly sexual. While the ultimate outcome of the “cat and mouse” game between Michele and her assailant borders on the insane, the journey to get you there is meticulously and near flawlessly constructed.
Far from believable, Elle is at times outlandish. But there is no denying its power to draw you in—a power that flows almost entirely from Huppert’s performance as the sadistically resolute woman. It’s the French way, I suppose.