Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Anna Consigny
Length: 131 minutes
Paul Verhoeven, the provocative director of Basic Instinct (1992) and Total Recall (1990), stuns audiences once more with his new French language rape-revenge thriller Elle. Based on the novel Oh… by French author Phillippe Djian, the film follows the story of Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), a successful businesswoman, who, after being violently attacked and raped by a masked intruder in her home, embarks on a journey to have her vengeance.
Alongside the obviously distressing scenes of rape throughout the film, perhaps its most perturbing elements are the more subtlety infused recurring motifs of violence. First shown through the graphic, sexualised video games that Michèle (Huppert) produces as the CEO of a video game company and secondly through the haunting resurrection of the traumatising crimes committed by her father when she was young. Violence is progressively normalised throughout the film at a disturbing rate. However, this does not dissuade from the unnerving atmosphere that pervades the film.
Huppert’s screen presence is outstanding as she fiercely dominates the screen with the perfect balance of subtlety and fervour. Though obviously distressing, this french language drama is thrilling and impactful even in its simplest moments, primarily due to Isabelle Huppert’s consistently striking, acute performance. Huppert’s portrayal of her immensely complex character is astute, further reinforcing the unnerving suspense of the narrative.
The film’s aesthetic is a sinister yet romantic one, creating an afflictive tone that rivals with its equally afflictive content. Its sinister tone is perfectly harmonised by the eerie original soundtrack, enhancing the atmosphere of allure and threat that so highly dominates the film. Whilst set on a small scale, limited to only a few locations, the visuals are simple yet stunning.
I would be surprised if anyone interpreted Huppert’s character as a victim in the film. The narrative cleverly follows Michèle through the various normal facets of her life, from her high-strung professional career to her more mundane bourgeois dinners with friends, enhancing her image as a strong, self-sufficient, frankly busy woman. If anything, it is the men in her life who are the weak victims of her narrative; her struggling son, her imprisoned father, and her desperate lover. Huppert herself defends her character as a “post-feminist heroine”, claiming that the film is a “human comedy” about the “empowerment of women”. However, it can be said that Verhoeven does blur the lines of normalising rape to a certain degree. In fact, when first informing her friends about her attack over dinner, Michèle does so in a blasé fashion, acknowledging the violation with little to no emotion – creating an unsettling climate in the film.
Overall, Elle is an electrifying, multilayered psychodrama. Though scandalous and uncomfortable at times, it is a magnificently gripping cinematic experience, cementing both Verhoeven and Huppert’s place as the King and Queen of provocative cinema.