Elle (2016)

Isabelle Huppert is indeed the mesmerizing star of this twisted psychological drama, oozing with suspense marked by unease, foreshadowing and dread.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #1,415

Dir. Paul Verhoeven
2016 | France | Drama/Crime/Thriller | 131 mins | 2.39:1 | French

M18 (passed clean) for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny 
Plot: A successful businesswoman gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tracks down the unknown man who raped her.
Awards: Won 2 Golden Globes – Best Foreign Language Film, Best Leading Actress (Drama).  Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 Oscar – Best Leading Actress.  
International Sales: SBS International

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature – Sexual Assault; Female Agency
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: The Projector
First Published: 1 Mar 2017
Spoilers: No


If Black Book (2006) was a comeback of sorts for director Paul Verhoeven (after his contentious Hollywood phase), Elle has upped the mantle and would certainly be regarded as one of his best films, not just of his late period (he turns 79 this year) but of his entire filmography. 

The Dutch filmmaker has always held a special place in the hearts of fans, even if some of his works, now regarded as cultish like Basic Instinct (1992) or Showgirls (1995), remain fiercely derided. 

Starring Isabelle Huppert (well, who else would have read the script and said yes?) as a successful director of a video game company who was raped in broad daylight in her own home, Elle centers on her quest to liberate herself from the horrible attack and find the masked assaulter. 

It’s a film of crime and vengeance, almost operating like a cat-and-mouse thriller, but treated as a piece on female agency and empowerment. 

Huppert’s Michele is a terribly sarcastic woman, though one might admire her sardonic wit.  She has peculiar if problematic relationships with her mother, son, ex-husband and colleagues.  Most of all, she hates her imprisoned father, whom she has not seen in decades. 

“I’ve came here to spit on my father’s face.  Can’t say it was a metaphor.”

There is a kind of dark sexual undercurrent that permeates the film.  If it is not rape, it is sex; if it is not sex, it is masturbation.  Verhoeven and Huppert are no stranger to such provocative material, but they clasp it firmly and bring it to another level.

Huppert’s performance is mesmerizing (she deserved that Oscar over La La Land’s Emma Stone), and her character’s unfazed personality and steely confidence is a strong counterpoint to our vulnerability as a captive-vated audience. 

Verhoeven takes advantage of our position of psychological weakness by cranking up the suspense in scenes when Michele is alone in her house or office. 

There’s unbearable unease and dread—oftentimes the effect is a culmination of foreshadowing and traumatic flashback, techniques used with great skill to advance a twisted narrative. 

Elle is easily one of 2016’s most entertaining and gripping foreign films.  It is also morbidly hilarious yet deadly serious in its treatment of onscreen tension. 

It never lets up and you are forced into an unsettling world where, as it seems, a modern kind of proto-feminist is created in front of our eyes.  A Verhoeven film has never felt more essential.

Grade: A-


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