The extraordinary performance of French actress Isabelle Huppert makes the already subversive Elle into a Must See. Huppert plays the middle-aged businesswoman Michèle, who is raped in her home in the first seconds of this movie. Elle is likely to be controversial; Michèle’s reaction to the rape will not meet anyone’s expectations. At first, Elle seems like it will be a looks like a whodunit (who is the attacker?), then it shifts into a revenge fantasy, all the while remaining, at its core, an amazing study of Michèle, a character that we haven’t seen before. This is a woman who refuses to accept – and may not be capable of – victimhood.
The screenplay, which turns upside down any expectations we may have, is written by David Birke from a Philippe Djian novel. The hunted becomes the hunter, we never know what to expect from Michèle and shockers abound. Who better than Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) to direct? Especially since the willful Michèle has a lusty sexual appetite, with adventuresome tastes.
Michèle needs to be in control, and she’s generally tough enough to stay in charge. The way to understand her actions is that she will do anything to regain that control and to avenge any moment that someone else has wrested it from her. One would expect the rape to be shattering enough, but Michèle starts getting messages from her attacker that would send ANYONE into a puddle of paralyzing terror; instead she’s only momentarily unnerved.
With the exception of two monsters, all the men in Elle are weak (despite any internal sense of bravado), and she handles them all easily. (Those two monsters better watch out, too.)
One way of watching Elle is to keep score, as in: Michèle 6, Men 0. But Elle is not a man-bashing film – Michèle’s ridiculously self-centered mom and her son’s abusive nightmare of a girlfriend are just as unsympathetic as all but two of the men.
There’s plenty of dark humor in Elle. For example, immediately after the opening rape scene, we watch Michèle at work as the founding CEO of a video game company. She’s watching a clip from her company’s newest video game in development. The clip is so hyper-violent and misogynistic that it would trigger massive PTSD for any rape victim, but Michèle’s complaint is that it’s NOT VIOLENT ENOUGH.
Isabelle Huppert may be the best screen actress working today, she’s certainly the most fearless. She’s so fearless, you gotta wonder if there any scripts that she rejects for being TOO weird, challenging or transgressive. She is comfortable with roles that range from the kinky (The Piano Teacher) to the most twisted (Ma Mere).
Huppert is especially gifted at playing impenetrable. She is at her best when she simply REGARDS other characters, assessing and judging them. With almost no lines,and very little screen time, her sphinx-like character dominated the recent Louder Than Bombs.
I also have to note that her character in Elle is in her early 50s – a sexy early 50s – while Huppert herself is 63. She seems to have somehow stopped the aging process about 15 years ago.
Elle ends in a moment of friendship, with the final line an homage to my favorite movie of all time. There’s a difference between perverse and perverted, and Elle keeps just inside that fine line. The shockers, the very dark humor and Huppert’s singular and compelling performance make Elle one of the year’s most absorbing films. Two weeks after screening it, I’m still thinking about it. Elle is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.