Elle | Paul Verhoeven | NYFF 2016
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven returns with Elle, a pulpy psych-thriller based off Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… and adapted for the screen by writer David Birke. Elle opens in brutal fashion as our protagonist Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally assaulted and raped by a man wearing a ski mask. Oddly enough she doesn’t call the police or make a scene, she simply picks herself up, cleans up the mess and goes on with her day.
She is a busy woman, one of the two woman running a video game company where she doesn’t get any respect from her resentful male employees who work for her and her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She is also juggling the drama of her underachieving son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his rude and unfaithful girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz), as well as her mother Irène (Judith Magre), who is involved in an odd relationship with a much younger man named Raif (Raphaël Lenglet). When you throw in her platonic friendship with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) and the affair that she’s having with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) and you get a sense that this is a woman with her life in many different directions at once.
This becomes a little more understandable when it’s revealed that her father is a famous mass murderer who involved Michèle in his murder spree, which still haunts and effects her to the day. Calling the police would naturally bring more unwanted attention that she occasionally receives out in public – hence her keeping the fact that she was raped unusually close to the chest.
She does eventually break the news of her rape to Richard, Anna, and Robert who are all equally puzzled about her handling of the situation and not involving the authorities. She gets some support from them in the following days, as well as a helping hand from her neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) who she slowly develops a flirtatious relationship with. She needs it as she continues to receive shady texts from the assailant about watching her and threatening her with a second sexual assault.
The film navigates the murky waters of grey area and various genres and styles to create something that is often times icky and questionable, but equal parts thrilling because of it’s unusual subject material and even more shocking handling of it. Birke and Verhoeven don’t go to great lengths to make us think real hard about who the possible subject is, in fact, I found it quite obvious who it was, and I think that was intentional. They’re not as much interested in the who, but more so about the psychological effects on their heroine Michèle and how she handles it in a way that is actually empowering, not quite an easy feat.
This film rides on the daring shoulders of the terrific Isabelle Huppert in a brave and totally daring turn that is utterly compelling. She has a confidence to her that probably doesn’t line up with the idea of a rape victim, but that’s because she doesn’t allow herself to become a victim, but rather takes control of both the situation at hand, and of her sexuality.
Elle most certainly won’t be a film that casual moviegoers will want to follow because a film that opens mid-rape probably just isn’t for everyone. But for those that allow it to show its true colors, they’re in for one of the most erotic thrillers of the year and a film that will offer an experience not quite like any other you see in theaters this year, one that will stay with you long after you return home.