For more than a decade, Paul Verhoeven injected a hyper sense of satire in Hollywood blockbusters. The violence was amplified. The sexuality was amplified. For many, it was difficult to tell if Verhoeven was being serious or satirical in any given scene. After a couple of high profile flops, the Dutch director was exiled from big budget filmmaking, making his last couple films in his native Netherlands or Germany. Now Verhoeven returns to bring his unique brand of filmmaking to France with Elle, a unique tale of sexual assault that once again finds Verhoeven traversing in troubling territory with his patented brand of hyper absurdity. Led by a phenomenal performance by Isabelle Huppert, Elle is a shocking and stunning piece of storytelling that will entertain many and offend many more. Elle could seriously be called Problematic: The Movie – and if you’re familiar with Verhoeven’s sensibilities that might not be a bad thing.
Elle opens with a black screen and the sounds of a struggle, dishes crashing on the ground amidst the audible grunts of a horrific situation. Michèle Leblanc (Huppert) has just been raped by a masked assailant, leaving her beaten and bloodied. Michèle doesn’t report the sexual assault, keeping the crime to herself. She tells her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) that she crashed on her bicycle as a means to explain the wounds on her face. Michèle works in the world of video games, developing new titles with an army of programmers working beneath her. Despite her competence, Michèle faces resistance from her younger male underlings. As much as Michèle would like to pretend that her sexual assault is in the past, a number of anonymous text messages from her assailant remind her that she’s not safe.
Michèle is contending with so much more than the aftermath of her sexual assault and the creepy game of cat and mouse that her assailant is subjecting her to. Her son is having trouble keeping a job and needs help with the rent for an apartment for him and his pregnant and tempermental girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz). There is also Michèle’s jealousy towards her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) as he enters into a relationship with a much younger woman. Michèle struggles to put on a brave face around her neighbors Rebecca (Virginie Efira) and Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), with Michèle developing a crush on Patrick over time. On top of it all, Michèle has been carrying out an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). Even more, Michèle has an uneasy relationship with her mother Irène (Judith Magre), who enjoys affairs with younger men; and there’s also the matter of Michèle’s father who is imprisoned for a series of heinous crimes that leave a cloud of infamy hanging over the entire family.
Verhoeven keeps Elle swirling with so much going on that it’s almost impossible not to be swept up in the layers of drama unfolding. In adapting Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh…, screenwriter David Birke (with French translation by Harold Manning) loads the film set ups and reveals that keeps the audience on edge throughout. Naturally, Verhoeven injects the movie with a robust sense of humor that make even the most fraught moments of tension oddly comical. Elle will inspire a number of think pieces due to its troubling subject matter and the fact that the character of Michèle handles these situations in often an unusual manner. Often you’re left to wonder just what Michèle is thining as she makes questionable decisions in the wake of unsettling situations – and the last half hour will certainly inspire swaths of digital ink dedicated to outrage at its problematic material.
As much as Elle works due to Verhoeven’s verve in balancing the absurd elements with the unsettling drama, the film simply wouldn’t work without the intoxicating performance by Isabelle Huppert. Often Michèle makes bewildering decisions, but Huppert’s confidence as an actress coveys an attitude that makes Michèle a woman that is in control even when things are swirling out of control all around her. Huppert plays Michèle as vulnerable in moments and tough as nails in others, and there’s an alluring sensuality to the character that is never diminished by the horrific sexual assault that she’s subjected to. Frankly, it’s a shame that the Academy Awards will likely overlook Huppert’s stunning performance come awards season in favor of some middling piece of Oscar bait that’s in English. You’d be hard pressed to find a more astounding piece of acting this year, hitting so many different emotions and tones in a singular performance.
Throughout this review I’ve withhold quite a bit of information about Elle because it’s a movie full of surprises that are best left unspoiled by even the slightest suggestion. There’s an audacity to Elle that only Verhoeven could bring to the big screen, both troubling and exciting in its presentation. This is a movie that should come with TRIGGER WARNING slathered all over the marketing materials, as there’s not a single scene in Elle that might not leave somebody deeply disturbed. Enjoying Elle brings a bit of a guilty pleasure as it’s not natural to find so much pleasure in so many aspects that are entirely unpleasant. Elle is a strong return to form for Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert gives one of the year’s best performances. Whether you call it Elle or Problematic: The Movie, troubling material has never been such a pleasure to watch.
- Overall Score
Overflowing with problematic material, Elle is still a pleasure to watch due to the satirical stylings of Paul Verhoeven and an amazing performance from Isabelle Huppert.