Elle (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Lionsgate) Running time: 131 minutes approx.
Some film directors have reputations that precede them and when you learn that they are tackling a certain subject, alarm bells start to ring – like Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven subversive psychological character study is based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… looking at the unorthodox response of a rape victim.
For the sake of clarification, Elle doesn’t trivialise rape in anyway but does present a rather different and provocative way to explore the reaction of one victim of this abhorrent crime. Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), CEO of a video games development company, is raped in her home by a masked attacker. But instead of calling the police she gets on with her life as if nothing happens.
After receiving mysterious text messages and e-mails, Michèle is intent on tracking down her assailant but is distracted by other issues in her life, including her milquetoast son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) being used by his demanding girlfriend, her own mother Irene (Judith Magre) dating a gigolo as well as Michèle’s affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), husband of her best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny).
Verhoeven has quite a varied oeuvre to his name, taking in sci-fi (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), steamy thrillers (Basic Instinct) and WWII drama (Black Book), so perhaps a film like Elle shouldn’t be that surprising an addition. There are moments which seem farfetched and implausible but as Michèle’s family life and background are gradually revealed, her actions become less bemusing and more beguiling.
Eventually Michèle reveals all to Anna, Robert and her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) at awkward dinner at a restaurant, explaining she’s been to the doctors for the usual tests. Whilst the others are shocked, Michèle is still nonchalant about it all. We learn that she didn’t go to the police because her public profile is somewhat stained by an occurrence as a child and Michèle didn’t want the whole thing dragged up again.
To offset this, we are introduced to Irene and her toyboy lover of whom Michèle openly disapproves, along with Vincent and his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz), a self-centred little madam trying to fleece money out of Michèle to buy a flat. When Josie eventually gives birth Vincent is over the moon but everyone else a little stunned that he can’t recognise the baby clearly isn’t his.
Across the street Michèle spies on smiley neighbours Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and his devout Catholic wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira), taking a special interest in Patrick. No matter how much of a violation the rape was, Michèle hasn’t lost any interest in men or sex which is peculiar raising a pertinent question – did she perhaps enjoy being dominated?
It’s an appalling assumption to make but the evidence is such that we cannot discount this, notwithstanding the affair with Robert and Michèle’s apparent easy going attitude towards female objectification; in her company’s latest video game she admonishes the artists for making a female victim of a monster attack appear too passive, wanting more excitement from her to get the players going.
Michèle is not the only one in this film to respond and react in ways most of us would consider unusual, putting the characters a little beyond our understanding and certainly compromises any sympathy we should have for them. But what is “usual”? One we get to know Michèle we begin to see that she is behaving as per her own will and personality and not for the pleasure or approval of those around her.
There is little chance this will be seen as a feminist parable in anyway due to the core topic but as durable characters go, the men are second to the women. Michèle may be the victim but she refuses to pay the role, instead relying on her own mettle to deal with it. She buys mace, a bladed weapon and learns to shoot yet isn’t fazed, still possessing the same robust, forthright personality that defines her as a strong woman.
One could argue Michèle’s overall response is a sign of empowerment in not letting this attack bring her down, coupled with how, as the film progresses, she is able to offload the men in her life only for them to be the needy ones in the fallout. Grated this could have been achieved without the initial attack but like all densely plotted affairs, it serves a purpose as congruent catalyst in exploring this.
Whilst the topic of rape isn’t treated with levity the extraneous subplots are. The tongue is firmly planted in the cheek but don’t expect belly laughs, just a few guilty chuckles and cringe worthy moments. This doesn’t result in the tonal clash you might expect rather it prevents everything from becoming too po-faced and uptight, creating a balanced experience with peak and troughs, just like in real life.
Originally conceived as a Hollywood project, many mainstream names were discussed for the role of Michèle but moving the shoot to France saw Isabelle Huppert get the spot and frankly, no-one else could have pulled it off. A complex and enigmatic role that requires nuance, poise and inner confidence Huppert is at her most captivating and compelling here, her Oscar snub an evident travesty.
Not since the legendary Lillian Gish has anyone dominated the screen like Huppert yet can still appear so fragile and ethereal at the same time. She is woman, hear her roar and give her a cuddle too if she wants it. Verhoeven might be pushing 80 but there are no signs of elderly rust in his direction at all, just vibrant mischief, trenchant provocation and a keen sense of visual élan.
Where Elle is at its most challenging is in how presents things that a very wrong but in a louche kind of way. Its message isn’t explicitly clear and the characters are often frustrating but rarely has such a sensitive subject been treated with less sensationalism yet remain divisively urgent. Can we forgive Verhoeven for Dreamgirls now?
English HOH Subtitles
Rating – ****
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