Screened at the New York Film Festival – October 15, 2016
Release Date: November 11, 2016 (US)
Runtime: 130 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Isabelle Huppert; Laurent Lafitte; Anne Consigny; Charles Berling; Virginie Efira; Judith Magre; Christian Berkel; Jonas Bloquet
Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in 10 years is a complex work. The director of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” is in fine form stylistically, yet provides much more depth of meaning into this piece than we’ve seen in his previous films as he examines the aftermath of a brutal assault. “Elle” is definitely not for everyone (like most of Verhoeven’s films) and will likely not sit well with those moviegoers who lean more towards the politically correct. However, for those of us who have admired the director’s work in the past and understand his general approach to cinema, there is much to recommend here.
Based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Dijan, “Elle” tells of Michèle Leblanc, an executive at a video game company who is brutally assaulted one afternoon in her Paris home. The film follows Michèle as she comes to terms with what happened to her, how she relates to family and friends, and how she generally copes with her violation. In the course of this journey, it is revealed that Michèle has had to bear the burden of growing up in the shadow of an imprisoned father (I will not reveal why her father is in prison) and has had to shoulder enormous guilt in her personal life.
It would be very easy to label this film as a “rape-revenge fantasy,” but “Elle” is much more than that. First of all, Michèle does not react as you might typically expect a woman in her position to: she does not call the cops and she does not become a vigilante hell-bent on revenge. (Sidebar: this is where the differences between an American-made film and a European-made film become clear. In America, I can see this film as being mandated that Michèle seek revenge against her attacker and triumph in the end as a stronger, more empowered woman. As a European-made film, we get a much more psychologically-nuanced piece that doesn’t conform to any pre-set rules or structure.) Michèle reacts to situations with a more heightened sense of awareness, finds herself lost in thought amid flashbacks to her attack, and relates to the people in her life with a much more frank attitude. She buys a gun and pepper spray, changes her locks and looks over her shoulder now and then, but that’s about it in terms of Michèle’s victimization. It is a testament to Isabelle Huppert’s remarkable performance that she makes Michèle’s response to her attack seem so natural to the character. You know that this assault has affected Michèle tremendously; you can see it in the way she interacts with family and friends, particularly her ex-husband, Richard, and her new neighbors, Rebecca and Patrick. Yet, the performance never feels “directed” or “storyboarded,” if you will. Huppert is living this character’s truth, not someone else’s idea of how Michèle should or ought to respond: she is truly one of the world’s finest living actors. (I mean, the woman made her American film debut in “Heaven’s Gate” and came out unscathed, for Pete’s sake!)
Paul Verhoeven, for his part, just sits back and let’s Huppert do her thing, which is crucial to the performance we get from her. He concentrates more on the mise en scène and moving the narrative along. While his fluid filmmaking style is definitely on display here, he exhibits marked restraint compared to his previous, American films (“RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” “Starship Troopers” to name a few). Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (doing wonderful work here) and film composer Anne Dudley aid Verhoeven immeasurably in creating and underlining the mood of the film. All across the board technical aspects of this film are top-notch.
Again, this is not a film that everyone will like…Verhoeven’s films usually aren’t (which is one of the reasons why I like his movies so much). However, if you are comfortable enough to set aside your preconceived thoughts about how this story should play out and open up your mind to how it could play out in one woman’s history, then there is much to challenge you here. Of course, you can also just sit back and admire the bravery and unaffectedness of Huppert’s performance. That alone is worth the price of admission.