Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Charles Berling, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor, Judith Magre.
Dutch born filmmaker Paul Verhoeven carved out quite a niche for himself in Hollywood as a director of big budget sci-fi action films with cutting edge special effects (films like Total Recall and Starship Troopers), but he is also no stranger to controversy with films like his early Turkish Delight shocking audiences in the 70s. And he also made the erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the lurid, trashy Showgirls, which won seven Razzies in 1995. Sex and violence are some of the key ingredients of his oeuvre, and so it is with Elle, his first feature film in nearly a decade.
Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert in one of her best performances) is a strong willed but somewhat predatory and tough women who runs a video game company that specialises in developing fantasies full of sex and violence. Her father was a notorious serial killer who has been imprisoned for the past thirty years. His crimes still haunt her, and there is a nagging suspicion within her local community that she was somehow involved in his horrific crime spree.
When the film opens, Michele is brutally raped by a masked man in her own apartment. But instead of reporting the crime to the police she calmly cleans up some broken crockery, has a arm bath and goes about her business. She spends some time trying to identify her attacker, who she suspects is someone who knows her well. There is no shortage of suspects, including a couple of her employees and Richard (Laurent Lafitte, from the ensemble comedy/drama Little White Lies, etc), the handsome neighbour across the street.
It seems that her rapist is stalking her and making veiled threats. Thus begins an intriguing and subtle game of cat and mouse. Michele’s response throughout remains frustratingly oblique. Her actions lead us to question whether this was a crime or was it an act of consensual but rough sex?
Michele’s life is nothing if not complicated though. Her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling, from Summer Hours, etc) is a failed writer and involve in an affair with a young yoga teacher. Development on the latest video game is behind schedule and she has some heated run-ins with the lead designer. She has a prickly relationship with her elderly mother (Judith Magre) who has a thing for younger gigolos. Michele is also having an affair with Robert (German actor Christian Berkel, from The Man From UNCLE, etc), the husband of her business partner and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny, from The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, etc). She is also trying to deal with problems associated with her rather naive son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who is involved in a tumultuous relationship with the demanding and psychotic pregnant girl friend Josie (Alice Isaaz), whom Michelle detests.
Based on the 2012 novel Oh written by French-American novelist Philippe Djian (Betty Blue, etc), and adapted to the screen by David Birke (13 Sins, etc), Elle is a disturbing and confronting psychological thriller that explores potent themes of desire, power, sex, pain, violence, revenge, adultery and secrets. This is a very busy film with lots happening, some of it quite dark and unpleasant. Michele’s motivations are always a little unclear and Verhoeven deliberately keeps audiences in the dark. He loves working in a murky amoral world coloured by shades of grey and here he maintains a delicate balancing act between black comedy and sexually charged drama. Verhoeven creates a slowly increasing air of unease and dread throughout.
Elle has a very European sensibility to it especially in its approach to sex, sexual politics and sexual attitudes. Originally intended to be shot in America, Elle was ultimately shot in France because Verhoeven had trouble raising financing for it in Hollywood and finding an actress willing to tackle such a demanding and difficult and provocative role.
Huppert, who is no stranger to strong, sexually perverse roles having appeared in Michael Haneke’s masochistic thriller The Piano Teacher, makes the most of this meaty and multi-layered role. She delivers a brave, raw and nuanced performance here as a woman whose life has been shaped by trauma but who refuses to play the victim. Her Michelle is tightly wound, but she is also a strong and somewhat manipulative character with an icy demeanour, who will remind audiences of Catherine Trammell, the anti-heroine of Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. (Ironically Sharon Stone was one of the actresses who turned down this meaty role.) Huppert conveys a range of emotions through her facial expressions. She also delivers her character’s venomous dialogue with relish. Michele is an unpleasant and unlikeable character at times, but Huppert’s performance carries the film and commands our attention.
Elle is an intriguing and disturbing character study from a filmmaker known for his provocative dramas, and it is difficult to sit through and uncomfortable to watch at times. And at an overly generous 130 minutes it becomes a bit of a chore for audiences.