DIR: Paul Verhoeven • WRI: David Birke • PRO: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt • DOP: Stéphane Fontaine • ED: Job ter Burg • MUS: Anne Dudley • DES: Laurent Ott • CAST: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Laffitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Jonas Bloquet, Judith Magre, Alice Isaaz, Christian Berkel
Successful, fifty-something video games developer Michele (Huppert) gets brutally raped in her own home by a masked assailant. She forgoes contacting the police and instead arms herself with weapons to defend herself, while slowly trying to work out who the culprit may be. She also has a myriad other problems she has to attend to, such as her dopey, broke son who’s looking for an apartment for him and his pregnant girlfriend to move into, her sex-obsessed mother who has hooked up with a gigolo less than half her age and, perhaps most pertinently, her serial killer father looking to get released from prison after decades inside.
Paul Verhoeven, the eccentric Dutch director of subversive Hollywood films such as Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, returns to our screen after a decade-long hiatus since his German WW2 drama Black Book. The result is an exceptionally unusual, unclassifiable provocation that manages to be thrilling, utterly hilarious- in the darkest possible sense- and deeply disturbing and discomforting. While the basic premise may sound like a rape-revenge thriller in the vein of I Spit on Your Grave or MS. 45 the film subverts the expectations of this sub-genre in a variety of interesting ways. Firstly, the middle-class French setting provides an unusual backdrop from which to play out such an exploitation premise. Most arresting though is the complex characterisation of the protagonist and the endless array of sub-plots and tangents that she must wade through.
Michele initially seems rather unperturbed by her violent attack. She carries on with work as usual. She even complains that an abstract tentacled rape in a violent video game she is producing is too tame and needs to be embellished. She eventually reveals what happened to her over dinner with her ex-husband Richard (Berling), her current part-time lover Robert (Berkel) and her business partner Anna (Consigny), who also happens to be Robert’s wife. She then slowly but cannily starts investigating as to who the attacker may be, fearing it may be related to the recent attempts of her serial killer father to be granted release from prison forty something years after he performed a bizarre, horrific massacre for which a then seven-year old Michele was, somehow, demonised for in the media due to an infamous picture of her younger self staring blankly amidst the horrors. Other possible culprits could be one of her misogynist video game developers who seem to resent her power. The revelation of who the attacker is happens just over halfway through the film. Then the knotty plot veers into ever more provocative territory.
At the heart of every provocation and the glue holding the film together, however, is a magisterial central performance from the peerless Isabelle Huppert. Her Michele views the hardships and miseries of life through the same bitterly humorous and blaze vantage point of the film. While her reaction to being raped is likely to cause much debate, there is little doubt that Michele is an exceptionally strong character who exercises agency in every aspect of her life. She doesn’t always do what may be perceived to be the right, responsible or moral thing but how refreshing to see such a rich, uncompromised late middle-aged (Huppert is actually 63), female protagonist. In Huppert’s hands Michele is not only a fascinating character but also inherently charming, in spite of any flaws she may have. A performer of intense charisma and intelligence, such are the riches that Huppert provides the film with, not only is it impossible to imagine it without her, but it ranks as a clear example of actor as auteur.
Working from a sharp, witty script by David Birke, the great Verhoeven also retains his mischievous, authorial stamp albeit in a sometimes low-key fashion. Formally, the film is a lot more subdued than much of his work. Gone is the surreal extravagance of Total Recall or the carnival grotesquery of Showgirls. Stephane Fontane shoots everything in a simple, traditional fashion befitting of tasteful, bourgeois French dramas. There is a taste of Claude Chabrol or Alfred Hitchcock in the film’s approach to the utilisation of tension and Bunuelian social satire in a hilarious Christmas dinner sequence. Despite all this, that menacing Verhoeven ambiance of interchangeable horror and hilarity, and of pervasive ambivalence, lurks in every corner of the picture. This is a deceptively complex, uproariously misanthropic, unclassifiable original, powered by one of the best-ever performances of a true on-screen great.
18 See IFCO for details
Elle is released 10th March 2017
Elle – Official Website