By Elias Savada.
There is a brazen, dangerous atmosphere floating about the French-language feature Elle, a dramatic thriller with much to admire but, depending on your sensibilities, not as much to like. Maybe I’m too much of a puritan in this case and need to re-watch it. It’s an edgy affair that that you should appreciate for the gutsy performance by Isabelle Huppert (also currently on American screens in Things to Come) and the I-dare-you-to-watch direction of Paul Verhoeven, who helms only his second feature in a decade, as 2006’s war thriller Black Book marked his triumphant return to Europe after 20 years in Hollywood. While in the U.S., he found success in over-the-top sci-fi flicks (Robocop, 1987; Total Recall, 1990; Starship Troopers, 1997; Hollow Man, 2000) and the intensely provocative frolics (at least by 1992 standards) of Basic Instinct. His Golden Raspberry, a well-deserved honor, was Showgirls. As recently as 2012 he offered up the sub-hour, subversive Danish farce Tricked – currently fleshed out on Netflix with a making-of featurette – about a dysfunctional family, its 50-year-old cuckolding husband, and assorted back- and belly-stabbing bedfellows.
For the Amsterdam-born Verhoeven, his films often have threads of explicit violence and dark sexuality which can cause itching and discomfort (well, at least one of those). Elle has more than a few of those moments, and they surround the film’s title character, Michèle (Huppert). She’s the ice queen CEO of a video game company, which specializes in the extremely violent variety of entertainment, and is as ruthless in business as she is with her family. Rather than show any human emotion, she turns off any passionate faucets while dealing with her life.
As the two-hour-plus film begins, the audience gets a one-two gut punch. The swelling score by Anne Dudley (an Oscar-winner for The Full Monty back in 1997) begs you to think of Bernard Herrmann when he did those memorable Hitchcock films (and I wonder what Sir Alfred would think of this passive-aggressive undertaking). Then you’re brought full-steam into the home invasion and rape that is re-examined at future moments in the film, each time peeling away more excruciating detail. But Michèle purposefully strays from the common sense road of alerting the authorities to let them investigate. She has her own methods on dealing with the crime; no rape kit for her. Instead, she nonchalantly and literally picks up the pieces, and is quickly soaking up the bubbles in a hot bath, no doubt contemplating how best to deal with the situation on her own terms. Then, she orders takeout.
Based on the French novel Oh… (2014) by Philippe Dijan, and adapted by David Birke into an English-language screenplay (it was originally envisioned with a full American cast set in a large U.S. city), Elle examines the startling journey of a rape victim as if she’s plotting out a business deal, one with lucrative and devastating consequences. With unequal parts of whodunit mystery, sexual balancing act, family dysfunction guide, and, ultimately, a take-no-prisoners approach to the poor sap of a perpetrator. Along the way she relishes in intimidating her low-level staff into assisting her. It’s a means to an end. She’s as determined in her quest as Verhoeven is to weaving all of the story lines together.
In a film that deals with ambivalence of a rape victim, Elle casts a heavy-handed net over its characters. The actors (including Laurent Lafitte as Michèle’s ex-husband and Anne Consigny as her business partner) offer tense interaction with Huppert’s stone-hearted creature, often oblivious to her puppet master antics. Huppert’s performance is one of the finest of the year.
It’s also one of the best photographed movies of the year, thanks to Stéphane Fontaine’s elegant, voyeuristic work as director of photography. Yes, it’s got an abundance of wit and dark comic dalliances. For the Washington DC Area Film Critics Group, it garnered a best foreign-language feature award (not my pick), yet it wasn’t even selected as a semi-finalist for the Academy Awards. You win some. You lose some.
So, if you want to be creeped out this holiday season, this Elle‘s for you.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).