Paul Verhoeven’s new film, Elle, provides more joy than you would expect from a film that opens with a rape. It helps that the victim of the sexual assault, Isabelle Huppert’s Michele Leblanc brushes of the trauma like dust from the harmattan with chilling nonchalance. When she reveals her ordeal to her friends, it’s as casual as it gets; over dinner with a bottle of champagne on ice.
So does Verhoeven’s jet black comedy take the subject of sexual assault lightly? Is the film even about the rape? Did some woman curve Verhoeven so time ago and is this his way of getting back at her? Questions, one is free to ask, but regardless the conclusion, there is no doubt that every plot point, every detail, is key to building up the character of Michele who is immensely gripping and disturbing in equal measure. There will be some reservations bur I have no problem propping Huppert’s performance as one of the most enjoyable female turns since Meryl Streep as Violet Weston in August: Osage County.
Indeed, you could cite some similarities between Violet and Michele given their apparent self-destructive tendencies and scorched earth streaks though I kind of looked on at the former with some sympathy. Violet looked like she was spiralling out of her mind and there remained some concern for her given her drug addiction and alcoholism. In Elle, we never doubt the audacious Michele is in control whilst her proclivities appear to be more sexual in nature. This point, along with later developments, align the opening sexual assault in a less uncomfortable, but definitely demented light.
Let me paint a clearer picture of our lead: Michele lives in a nice apartment on the affluent side of Paris, think Cache. She is divorced and has a son who looks to be in his mid-20s and is prepping to shack up in a new apartment with his pregnant girlfriend, an apartment Michele has to pay for in the short term. He is also probably Verhoeven’s interpretation of a millennial. Michele is also an executive for a video games company. Our first visit to her workplace is almost wince inducing in its caustic splendour as we get a glimpse of the predatory nature latest video game they are developing. It is a third person player that has its user not saving, but raping the princess.
It brought to mind the amusing corporate cynicism in Verhoeven’s Robocop which still manages to hold up. Elle also cuts between tones much like I remember Robocop doing. There seemed to be a clear line between the sardonic boardroom skits, the hilarious news items and ads as we waited to jump back into the action narrative. Elle kind of traverses a number wavelengths too dithering from mystery to laugh-out-loud comedy to crazy satire to tense erotic thriller as it paints a psychological portrait of its protagonist. Verhoeven has all the components to make this work transitioning seamlessly where need be and toying with our emotions.
The construction of Michele still remains the most intriguing aspect of the film regardless of the direction. As the story unravels there is a perhaps a hint at some pathology at play as it is revealed decades ago, Michele’s father went on a horrific killing spree blowing his neighbour’s heads of and hacking them to death for the most mundane of reasons. Michele herself is considered by the public to have played her own special part in the violent debacle and is labelled a psychopath. Her dad is in prison now and up for a parole he is unlikely to get and her plastic-faced mom wants a little father – daughter reunion. Michele is having none of it.
There is a lot going on as we traverse the aforementioned tones and there are times when it feels like the rape is put on the back burner although, to be fair, Michele does have some flashbacks and we sense some trauma lingers. When the film finally tugs on the line of the mystery of the rape, the answer to the whodunit is kind of predictable. Verhoeven has more fun with us when we explore the why and it essentially comes off as lust manifesting itself in a cruel joke. It’s a very provocative approach to desire and control as pertaining to sex. The film tries to say some interesting things about consent but there is so much craziness going on its hard to sit and mull over the implications.
But this kind of mirrors Michele’s reaction to the rape. There is so much going on around her that she has to cover up the bruises, clean up the mess and get on to meeting deadlines of her rapey game at work with some suspicions that her rapist could be one of her probably many resentful employees. Her son’s domestic stubbornness is also testing the limits to her fury and watch out the priceless reaction to the birth of her son’s baby. She’s also having an affair with her good friend’s sleazy husband and has to deal with her mother deciding to marry her boy toy who is probably a third her age.
Elle afforded me the chance to be wowed by Isabelle Huppert for the first time, kind of like my first encounter with Juliet Binoche who I saw for the first time in the brilliant Clouds of Sils Maria. Huppert captivates with a passive intensity whilst hitting great deadpan beats with little fuss. She is audacious in the way she embraces the sensual verve of her character and turns it up to 11 where need be. Verhoeven wants her to play creepy perv, no problem. just hand her the tissue and a pair of binoculers.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana