Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Given that’s he’s best known for Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and Robocop, a small scale black comedy about a woman recovering from trauma may seem a strange choice for Paul Verhoeven. Yet there’s always been two sides to this director: the blockbusters and the smaller arty films. Elle is very much in the second category. It’s slow burning, uncomfortable and uncompromising.
From the opening scene, where we enter on a cat witnessing the aftermath of a rape, it ought to be clear Elle’s going to be a tough watch. We don’t see what happened yet, with much of the opening scenes power coming from the titular character (Huppert) trying to live life as normal. And then when it does get addressed it’s via the tough medium of black comedy. “I suppose I was raped,” she casually says over dinner, just in time for the wine to arrive. A number of subplots emerge, including our protagonist’s difficult relationship with her dim-witted son (Bloquet) and his obviously adulterous partner, her own affair with her friend’s husband, tensions with her mum (Magre) and her latest toy-boy, the mixed feelings she has for her ex (Berling), someone making nasty videos of her at work and then her crush on the married neighbour (Lafitte): the one exception to the list of lowly men. Oh, and to top it off, her mass-murderer father may get out on parole! It sounds packed, yet the many strands effortlessly come together, in a mix of theme and plotting, as the focus narrows around her quest to turn the tables on the man who attacked her. Once she finds out who he is things get really messed up.
It may not sound like there’s a lot to laugh at, yet much of Elle’s success comes from its social satire. Much of the movie takes place around dinner tables, skewing middle class sensibilities and sexual repression. Often, when watching subtitled films, it can be difficult to gauge how good the acting is. Yet the cast her do a stellar job of handling the often mixed tones, preventing the sometimes slightly goofy bits from betraying the otherwise foreboding atmosphere. Huppert is an especially good anti-victim, playing many scenes with a real mean streak and a barely-repressed rage. It helps that the role is so interesting, with Elle being both our hero and a quintessential bitch. Verhoeven makes little attempt to get sentimental or didactic, with the character fulfilling many misogynistic tropes, e.g. being mean-spirited, emotionally cold and promiscuous. It’s this type of writing that makes the later scenes so interesting.
Yes, something else that makes this movie so darn good is the moral complexity at the heart of it. Without giving too much away, the second half offers numerous ambiguities and challenges perceptions of victimhood. To some, this will be a horribly dated and exploitative film based upon the sexual politics of yesteryear. For others, it’ll be challenging piece about overcoming an awful event. What it definitely isn’t is a standard genre piece. Sure, there are some horror elements – though there’s very little actual violence. In addition, the usual cat and mouse narrative of rape-revenge movies gets turned on its head in the third act. As such the tension comes largely from the nasty psycho-sexual dynamics and the sustained feelings of threat. Each interaction between Elle and her friends/ family is loaded with personal politics. This is especially true in the later scenes, where she better gets to know her rapist, and their jostling to be on ‘top’ is truly disturbing. Here, sexual abuse is not about wanting. Much more disturbingly it’s about power.
So as you can tell by the tone of the review above, and the star rating below, I’m a big fan. However, given the difficult subject, tone and storytelling that’s not necessarily a recommendation. Although if it sounds even remotely like something you’d like then get with it. Sure, it’s definitely not as fun as Robocop. But it’ll give you a lot more to think about.