After watching Elle, the latest film from Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, one of the first things that struck me was how strange it was that this film had made decent headway in the awards season. That’s not to say that it’s bad – very far from it, in fact – but that it’s practically unsellable to conventional awards audiences. A French rape-revenge black comedy of manners that defiantly refuses to take any safe paths and never ceases to shock, it will likely turn the stomachs of plenty of viewers, or be met with derision for its surreal handling of its subject matter. Yet, with its transgressive treatment of its leading woman and the astoundingly assured central performance from Isabelle Huppert, it’s compelling, near-essential viewing.
Opening on the assault itself, we initially see only the aftermath of the attack (though eventually the full, sickening, act is presented painfully starkly), as a masked man leaves Huppert’s Michele Leblanc bleeding on the floor of her living room. It’s, deliberately, a clichéd moment through and through, making it all the more jarring when, instead of informing the police, calling a friend, or simply breaking down, Michele defies all expectations by tidying up the room, having a bath, and ordering sushi. She’s still a victim, but one that resolutely refuses to follow the typical cinematic victim pattern, instead setting an elaborate and slightly absurd revenge plan in motion, the intricacies of which aren’t fully revealed until the very end.
Described in some discussions as a ‘feminist rape-revenge movie’, I can see how such a classification of Elle might be refuted, but there’s no denying that Michele, as a character, is a brilliant step forward. She’s our heroine, and generally makes for great company with an acid wit, but is by no means a good person, and Verhoeven and writer David Birke, adapting the book Oh by Philippe Dijan, never attempt to make her ‘likable’ in the way that so many lesser female-led films do.
Conducting an affair with the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), and attempting to start a second one with her neighbour, married man Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), she’s icily unempathetic, though one can forgive her this when she’s interacting with her terrible family. Her botoxed mother (Judith Magre) is constantly accompanied by male escorts, while her dim and weak-willed son is about to have a baby with his simply awful girlfriend. Idiocy besets her from all sides, and she’s facing a horribly poorly timed mutiny from lead programmer Kurt (Lucas Prisor) at the video game company she owns.
As should be evident from the above, there’s a hell of a lot going on in Elle, and the deft weaving of all these separate intricate plots to serve the larger narrative is something to behold. As stories advance and the dark history of the Leblanc family is revealed, the laundry list of possible suspects for the rapist grows, and as soon as you think you have the answer pegged, another surprise or twist is thrown your way. This tactic is risky, and could have become tiresome in less capable hands, but instead keeps you on your toes constantly, allowing the audience to more easily to tap into the terror of feeling at threat in your own home.
As a thriller, Elle is horribly effective, but it also spends long stretches of time as a pitch-black comedy. Dinner parties in films like this are always going to be sources of squirm-inducing discomfort, and the ones hosted by Michele are no exceptions, just as, if not more, excruciating as one would expect. Taking bourgeois propriety and morals to task, Elle excels in both its script and its visuals at portraying the strange coldness of upper middle class life.
With a washed out palette and incredibly chic design, Elle can be a very alienating film – its style reflecting its lead character – with one of its most needlingly discomforting traits being to challenge your sympathies for Michele. She goes through a hideous trauma, but with no major emotional breakthroughs or particularly warm moments (Michele’s biggest smile comes when her ex-husband calls her dangerous), Verhoeven asks the breathtakingly bold question of which victims deserve your sympathy, and how much each victim might get.
Without Huppert, this sort of gambit simply would not work, but her layered and mesmeric performance, Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning, sells every part of Verhoeven’s vision (with the exception of a bizarrely melodramatic windstorm scene). We see her terror, exasperation, and fury all at the same time as a wicked sense of humour and explicit sexual forwardness and bluntness. It’s a simply brilliant piece of acting in a risky role, grounding a film that is guaranteed to spark debate and divide audiences long after the thrilling and disturbingly funny ride finishes.