Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: David Birke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel
Runtime: 130 Minutes
Paul Verhoeven is a filmmaker who savours voyeurism, provoking a response from audiences through his subversions of expectation and his biting satire of the modern world. No matter what genre he appears to be working with, he always manages to bring interesting discussion up regarding the abject grotesque nihilism of humanity in a variety of different forms.
His first feature film in nearly a decade, Elle sees Verhoeven operating without his usual filters in his character study of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert); a successful head of a video game company who at the very beginning suffers a violent rape in her home. Her atypical response to this horrifying attack is one of the film’s most unsettling and powerful critiques of the depravity of the modern world – this is a film that could never be made in the English speaking world.
Michèle’s first instinct following the rape is to clear up, take a bubble bath and just generally go about the rest of her day, not informing the police but rather revealing the nature of said event to her friends over a dinner conversation. Much to their shock and dismay, she doesn’t want to make a martyr of herself or to be made an example of for others people’s pitting sympathies. Michèle’s icy cold exterior towards her friends and family are the product of an incredibly damaged past, with the kind of experiences harboured that would be the perfect components in the creation of a sociopath.
Michèle is one of the strangest and most endlessly fascinating depictions of the ‘post-feminist’ cinema might have ever seen. A woman so endlessly dedicated to her own sense of professionalism that she is able to absorb such awful patriarchal violence and ridicule, and channels it into her own power in a way that can exclusively help herself in the pursuit of her desires. She refuses to be the victim of her own story, and the palpable resentment that the audience might hold for her in their refusal to be allowed to feel good in their emotional alignments is felt with every single character surrounding her.
Much of the power of the character comes down to the shocking range of Isabelle Huppert. This is the best performance that she has ever given in a career of truly great performances, and watching her cut loose with steely magnetism and charisma is half the work done on the film's part. She’s spectacular as the enigmatic, calculating heart of the movie who operates on minimal emotional requirement, yet is so deeply layered in her portrayal of a woman who will go to any lengths to fill in the weaknesses of her emotional shield.
The mood of the film is muted and discomforting to such a degree that it’s going to be almost unbearable for many to be able to stomach. Elle is unrestrained and unfiltered in an approach that is so raw and unlike anything else Verhoeven has made. The overwhelming dourness to the atmosphere, colour pallet and natural photography become eventuated in the content of its fetishist intent on exploiting the masculinity of any of the main male characters for all its worth, stripping it down and making an example of the absurdities of modern expectation, with its focus on the video game industry being a deliberate call out to the worst aspects of the wretched ‘GamerGate’ controversy of a few years ago. Verhoeven relishes the bourgeois commentary of awful dinners and formal occasions ripped down with jovial intention, all the while screaming of the insincerities of religious foundations in the backdrop.
The narrative goes about as dark as it can possibly go with the material, but in a world of hateful and abusive individuals, the film still finds a sense of black comedy in its observations that might not be immediately apparent until its absurdities start seeping into the frame. There isn’t even really a traditional story to be found in its structure beyond vignettes of which Michèle makes quick work of in her own pursuit of personal justice, and while a little overlong it’s the performance of Huppert that overwhelms and practically fills in the cracks of its foundations with a power that will be hard to match by any other role this year. Twisted, dark, disturbing, hilarious, bitingly current and sharp as a razor – this is worth all the discussion it generates.