Critically acclaimed French psycho-drama, Elle, has been praised for its bold exploration of sexual violence, but it is likely to divide and disturb audiences expecting a straightforward revenge thriller. It is a twisted, uncomfortable ride made enjoyable by flashes of black humour and an imperious performance by Isabelle Huppert.
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven made his name in 80s/90s Hollywood with social satires such as Robocop and Basic Instinct which gave audiences plenty of lurid sex and violence. After a decade away from the camera, he returns with a film about a rape and its aftermath, in which the scenes of disturbing sexual violence are directed in a more restrained, European arthouse way.
Elle starts with the rape, as seen through the eyes of her pedigree blue cat. It is more audio than visual, but we see a masked man attacking Michele (Huppert) in her Paris home in broad daylight. After he leaves she clears up the glass broken in the struggle, then has a bath, in which a triangle of blood blooms in the soapsuds. For reasons later disclosed, she does not phone the police, or tell her son.
Michele takes a hammer to bed, changes the locks the next day and arms herself with pepper spray and an axe. She is the boss of a video game company, overseeing the creation of a fantasy monster game, which, by coincidence, involves a rape scene. After watching this, she says it is too tame: ‘we need to feel thick, warm blood’. Aloof and cool, Michele is not popular with her staff, and we are encouraged by Verhoeven’s direction to seek out suspects among the young men who work there.
But the film becomes more character study than thriller, as we see Michele at work and play and learn what happened when she was ten. With a psychopathic murderer for a father and a botoxed mother who calls her a ‘little bitch’, we would not expect her to be so seemingly well-balanced. In a remarkable performance that holds our attention for more than two hours, Huppert is the epitome of elegance and cool. The French have an expression for it: ‘sang froid’, which when translated literally means ‘cold blood’. Huppert gives Michele a believable humanity under the chic veneer, and also the flicker of dangerous passion. She smiles for the first time in the film when her ex husband tells her, ‘the real danger, Michele, is you.’
Elle (and Michele) confounds our expectations at every turn and the main twist is a real jaw-dropper. It has a smooth surface that belies the darkness underneath: lift that shiny pebble and see the creepy-crawlies of human nature wriggle out. It is an uncomfortable watch because we are complicit in what is happening on screen. Verhoeven is playing with our responses to sexual violence and daring us to confront our own darkness: ‘go on, admit it, that turned you on, just a little bit. So what does that make you?’
Verhoeven’s playfulness extends to a couple of nods to Hitchcock films (Dial M for Murder and Rear Window) and the score, when it eventually surfaces during the suspense scenes, is Bernard Herrmann lite. Perhaps Verhoeven saw Elle as a kind of homage to Vertigo, Hitchcock’s classic tale of male aggression and obsession, which also featured a luminous central performance.