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Elle (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 21, 2020



ELLE (2016)

Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Jonas Bloquet, Virginie Efira, Christian Berkel and Judith Magre.

Screenplay by David Birke.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  131 minutes.  Rated R.

A couple of decades ago it looked like Dutch director Paul Verhoeven was going to be one of the defining directors on the Hollywood scene.  His sharp eye and stylish camera sense from his early films Spetters, Flesh+Blood and especially The 4th Man caught the eye of the big studios.

His first American film was a cheesy 1987 b-movie called RoboCop which became a surprise smash hit.  He followed that up with a series of erotically charged thrillers, most of which also cleaned up in the box office: Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Starship Troopers (1997) and Showgirls (1995).

Unfortunately, among those were some of the most critically maligned style-over-substance films of the 1990s (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and especially Showgirls) and his star began to fade.  By the time he started getting his footing back with the surprisingly sharp b-horror movie Hollow Man (2000) the writing was on the wall for this technically astute but cheesy director.

Instead of licking the wounds of his Hollywood career, Verhoeven did the only thing he really could do: go back to Europe and regroup.  Though his name has been barely heard on this side of the Atlantic for over a decade, Verhoeven has kept himself somewhat busy in film and readied himself for his career resurrection.  He returned to the Nederlands and toiled on the likes of Black Book (2006) and Tricked (2010).

However, that resurrection comes with Elle, not simply a very good film, but possibly the best film Verhoeven has made yet.  It may not receive the blockbuster B.O. of Basic Instinct because the Paris-set film is in French with subtitles, but it does tell a very similarly-themed story on the intermingling of sex, violence and power, and it does an infinitely better job of it.

Part of this comes down to the fact that Elle has an infinitely stronger actress at its helm.  (Sorry Sharon Stone, but it’s no contest…)  Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert gives a master class of acting here, making her character of Michele strangely understandable and sympathetic even when she is doing some very bad, or sometimes merely bewildering, things.

Michele is an extremely driven, powerful woman.  She left the publishing world behind and became a force in the world of video gaming, creating a start-up company that specializes in sexually violent and fetishistic games.  She is wealthy, living alone in a gorgeous house in the suburbs of Paris.  She’s still good looking and fashionable for her age.  (We are never given the character’s exact age, but Huppert is a stunning 63.)  She is still friends with her ex-husband.  She is about to become a grandmother.  From the outside, at least, life is going smashingly for Michele.

However, we meet her at her lowest point.  Her cat is sitting there watching her as she is being violently raped by a masked man who has broken into her home.  He then turns and walks out, but in the upcoming days he sends her anonymous texts, spies on her and breaks into her home.

Then we get to know Michele.  It turns out that she is a somewhat hard, controlling woman.  She runs her business with an iron fist, to the point that just about all of her employees hate her.  She still maintains a relationship with her ex-husband, but she has somewhat cuckolded him.  As a starving novelist, he relies on keeping her happy so that she may give him a job in the gaming industry.  She realizes his desperation and strings him along.

She also has a love/hate relationship with her son, believing that his pregnant fiancée is just a gold-digging harpy after Michele’s money.  (Which it seems, she probably is.)  Her relationship with her own mother is even more fraught with problems, including her mother’s younger boy toy, who Michele also (again, probably rightly) pictures as only being in it for the money.  Even her relationships with her neighbors are harder and more passive aggressive than they originally seem.

Add to all these problems the fact that she has a very tragic – and very infamous – back story.  When she was only ten years old, her father, an apparently mild-mannered man, went crazy and started a killing spree in their neighborhood.  Then he went home and tried to set the house on fire.  There was an iconic news photograph of a ten-year-old Michele covered in ash, her eyes glazed, her face an unfeeling mask.  Decades later the murder is still well remembered, and Michele is still recognized as the ashen girl.

Suddenly we realize the question isn’t who would have a motive to attack her, but who would not have some reason to want to see her harmed.

Due to her bad childhood history with the police, Michele refuses to report the rape to the authorities.  In fact, after getting herself checked out at the hospital, she doesn’t even tell most of the people in her life about what happened.  When it becomes clear that the man is still trying to taunt her, she enters into a twisted cat and mouse game with him.  Even when she finds out who the culprit is, she still continues the game of sexual chicken with him.

Many things that Michele does – and her attacker – seem shocking and hard to digest.  But as I mentioned earlier in the comparison to Verhoeven’s earlier success with Basic Instinct, Elle is a hard and often uncomfortable look at the intersection of sex, violence and control.  Much more successfully than in the earlier film, Verhoeven shows how people can sometimes lose control, allowing their lusts and needs to color their actions, even when they put those people into danger.

Elle is a hard and yet psychologically astute look at how a lack of control can become a drug to a person who is used to having it.  More so, it shows how a woman can be both a victim and a predator at the same time.  It makes for a taut, disturbing thriller.

Elle should open the door for Verhoeven to return to Hollywood – should he want to take that path.  It also suggests that perhaps he’s better off right where he is, doing what he is doing.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: November 23, 2016.

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