March 15, 2017

Isabelle Huppert in Elle (2016) - courtesy Mongrel Media

It says a lot that Paul Verhoeven, director of gratuitously violent films like Robocop (1987) and highly sexualised ones like Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), judged his latest film, Elle, to be too ‘amoral’ to be filmed in America. Although he planned to relocate the story of Philippe Dijan’s source novel, Oh…, to Boston or Chicago, its provocativeness kept it rooted firmly in Europe.

Once France was decided upon, Isabelle Huppert was Verhoeven’s natural choice for the lead role of Michèle. She is an executive at a video games company who is violently raped in her home by an unknown attacker. Rather than reporting the incident to the police, however, Michèle straightens her clothes, sweeps up the mess and gets on with her life.

This attack provides the opening for Elle, a shocking introduction in which we initially can’t see what is going on, but can only hear Michèle’s assault taking place. When the image finally cuts in, it is only of Michèle’s cat, watching the rape with the same kind of indifference that its owner adopts throughout the rest of the film. Isabelle Huppert is outstanding as the implacable victim, a subtle yet passionate performance. It’s difficult not to smile when her lips betray her pleasure at the thought of bludgeoning her attacker to death.

Michèle’s reluctance to report the crime to the authorities is the film’s most cryptic aspect. As it progresses, dark stories about her past begin to surface, which may explain why she doesn’t want to be known as a victim. But it is mainly a game to Michèle. Even when she discovers the identity of her attacker, she doesn’t report him to the police. She takes control for herself, begins to dictate how and when their game – because that’s what it turns into – progresses.

Michèle’s refusal to be victimized and her subsequent empowerment informs how she interacts with the rest of the world, including her friends and family. Verhoeven’s decision to change her profession from a screenwriter (as per the source novel) to a video games producer is provocative in itself. The environment she works in is a noxiously-masculine one, where femininity is a commodity and a product is only a good one if it has a ‘boner moment.’ This aspect of Elle is especially pertinent in a post-Gamergate world (explained here), where the role of women in entertainment – both as characters and contributors – has recently been a subject of intense commentary.

Essentially, Elle ends up being a fantasist’s vision of sexual empowerment, where indiscretions are forgiven with barely a glance back at the unmade bed, and where violence is happily resolved with more violence, and no consequences. It is a good thing that these are not real people, because they are all psychopaths, including Michèle, whose coldness towards almost everyone around her is not a product of the horrific attack she suffered, but of a deeper contempt seeded somewhere in the violence of her past.

In a film as emotionally threadbare as this, ‘feelings’ are merely a by-product of the warped games these people play, an unavoidable soiling of the carpet from all the shit being thrown. They do not love each other, despite what they might tell themselves. They do not care for each other’s welfare. Nor is Elle romantic enough to propose that love indeed makes a fool of us all. It is just a horror-show hall of mirrors, showing just how violently egocentric people can be. Sometimes it is recognisable; mostly it is outright ludicrous. Yet by parading these vengeful, shameless proxies in front of us, Paul Verhoeven has made one of his most complex, memorable films to date.

Elle poster

CountryFrance, Germany, Belgium LanguageFrench Year2016 DirectorPaul Verhoeven WritersDavid Birke, Philippe Dijan (novel) StarringIsabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny Runtime: 130 minutes

More about Alister Burton

An aspiring writer and obsessed film fan putting the two together at worldcinemaguide.com. Favourite film - 2001: A Space Odyssey. Favourite director - Fritz Lang. Guilty pleasure - Hard Target.

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