Elle  – ★★★★
A Dutch director known for Basic Instinct (1992) and Total Recall (1990), Paul Verhoeven has produced his first French-language film to date – Elle, based on a novel by Philippe Dijan (who is also known as a writer behind Betty Blue (1986)). Elle has already competed for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2016, and deals with a very sensitive topic of a rape perpetuated on a successful businesswoman Michele Leblanc, whose complex relationship with her family and the deep-seated psychological childhood trauma all lead her to have an unconventional response to the attack. This film is as disturbing as it is engrossing, and, overall, proves to be a satisfying experience, thanks to the outstanding performance by Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher (2001)) and to the masterful (though also slightly confusing) mix of a psychological thriller, a Hitchcockian detective story and French black humour.
As a psychological thriller and an insightful character study, Elle works well. Michele Leblanc is a strong leader heading a video-games company in Paris, France. She is authoritative and powerful in her approach to both: her personal life (deciding whether or not to lend money to her son), and her professional life (bossing around her young male employees). And, here, there is a juxtaposition: Michele is seriously violated in the privacy of her own home, reduced to vulnerability and helplessness. How is, then, Michele behaves? She pretends that nothing has happened. One of the possible responses to a serious sexual assault is the denial of the event, for example, due to shame. Elle, then, provides a fascinating psychological character study as Michele Leblanc tries to keep up the appearance of nothing happening, while, at the same time, panicking deep inside, buying a defensive pepper spray and changing locks at her house.
This psychological study is explored further by showing Michele’s changed behaviour in relation to her close family members, and her family members are quite a character palette: a father who is an ex-mass murderer currently in jail; a mother who is an apparent nymphomaniac dating a man who is half-her age; an ex-husband who is a failed and disillusioned writer; a son whose emotional tantrums and inability to hold down a job are problematic; and a future daughter-in-law who is also difficult to handle. After her ordeal, Michele displays animosity to the representatives of her own sex, the opposite sex, and to the unity of sexes: she is against her mother’s (purely sexual) relationship with her younger lover; she tries to separate her son from his fiancée; and keeps detesting her father who remains in jail. What this all adds up to is an interesting account of a complex relationship structure at the centre of which is a previously sane individual who is now on a brink of madness.
This fascinating portrayal would not have been possible without Huppert’s brilliant performance, and I would be counting on her being both nominated and winning the Academy Award for the Best Leading Actress at the forthcoming Academy Awards season. Huppert is mesmerising to watch, and, even if this film is not to everyone’s taste, it is impossible not to follow it through to the end because of Huppert’s complex and genuine performance.
As for Elle’s style and themes, it feels different, even if it does borrow some elements from its predecessors. It handles well a sensitive topic, adding smart, innovative touches to the story, even if it does resemble some films from the French “Extremity” movement, including Noe’s Irreversible (2002), and borrowing some indirect ideas from Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Interestingly, recurring themes in Elle are: (i) denial, and (ii) taboo relationships. Initially, Michele denies the crime of rape where she was the victim, but then, she also denies and refuses to believe the fact that her mother has suffered a heart-attack and is close to death, among other matters. The so-called “taboo-relationships” are everywhere in this film: Michele’s affair with a man who is supposed to be the lover of her best friend; Michele’s sexual relationship with the person she knew was her rapist; Irene’s (Michele’s mother) immoral liaison with the man much younger than her; Michele’s past lesbian relationship with her best friend. These themes and storytelling are rich in symbolism: at one point, Michele tries to cradle back to health a wounded bird; in another, Michele’s black cat watches as she is assaulted by a stranger.
Apart from being a psychological thriller, Elle also combines elements of a Hitchcockian whodunit story, and the style of it all is a pale colours-palette echoing the erotic films of Adrian Lyne (Unfaithful (2002)). The plot moves forward quickly, and Michele is always quick to suspect that that or other male in her surroundings has committed the crime. There is also plenty of suspense as her employee, her ex-husband and her neighbour all become prime suspects in the investigative game. All of this is presented alongside some humouristic setting. Yes, black humour is present, and it is largely sensed through Huppert’s deadpan delivery of her lines. There is even a Christmas dinner a la A Christmas Tale (2008), where distant family members get together and the discord breaks through – this is supposed to be comedic. In one scene, there is even a feeling that we are about to witness the recreation of a comic car-crash perversity we all probably saw in Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), and this is just to show the variety of methods and styles employed in the film.
In the end, Elle does not even know what kind of a film it is. It tries to go for a detective story, an erotic thriller, a psychological drama, but ends up being neither of these things. It cannot have its cake and eat it. Probably staying too faithful to Dijan’s novel, the film veers off course too many times, and has too many needless sub-plots making Elle unnecessary long. It is probable that only Michele’s complex relationship with her father is enough to consume half the time allocated.
Erotically provoking and fascinating, Elle is a curious detective story and a psychological conundrum all in one, whose main premise revolves around Michele, a character in her own right. The film just needs to be seen for Huppert’s outstanding performance, even if, eventually, this character’s numerous relationships with those around her are probably too complicated for the audience to focus on and eventually sympathise.