Written by Matt Taylor
Elle is in no way a film for everybody. It’s a film that’s almost impossible to classify. In one moment, it’s deeply disturbing and uncomfortable. In others, it’s absolutely hilarious. In many ways, it most resembles a comedy of manners, only to have scenes punctuated with disgusting acts of sexual violence. It’s a nasty film, and one that may entertain, but also has the capacity to make the audience sad, if not entirely pessimistic by the time the film ends. But it’s also a film with something important to say – and a message more relevant than ever, given how our nation is finally beginning to discuss the prevalence of sexual assault.
Directed by provocateur Paul Verhoeven, whose career has ranged from iconic erotic sci-fi (Robocop) to iconic erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct) to even iconic messes (Showgirls). Elle tells the story of a woman seeking revenge. In the opening moments, we meet Michèle mere seconds after she is brutally raped by a masked intruder, only to find her get up, take a bath, clean her house, and then prepare to meet her adult son for dinner. She only opens up about the assault a few days later to her ex-husband, best friend, and her best friend’s husband, with whom she is secretly having an affair. But she seems mostly unbothered – a sentiment that could stem from the fact that she is trying to track down her assailant, and is plotting revenge.
Of course, Michèle is deeply upset and wounded by her attack. Her seeming indifference is meant to show how women are typically silenced after being victimized, with few outlets to offer them support. And, as the film continues and Michèle’s list of suspects grows longer, we see how men expect women to fit into their own, personal mold for them, and become angry, if not dangerous, when their desires are not met. While the film eventually reveals the identity of Michèle’s attacker and offers the audience a standard, climatic third-act confrontation, his identity isn’t all that important. Instead, we’re meant to understand that just about every man in her life could have been her attacker – that, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they all have misogynistic tendencies.
But Elle is not as heavy as that sounds. It frequently steps away from its primary mystery to focus on a number of strange, amusing subplots. For example, Michèle works as a video game designer, and is receiving cryptic, mysterious threats at work, creating a separate who-done-it that’s equally compelling. She is also left to deal with her unusual, quirky family, including an unmotivated son who is ignorantly raising another man’s child with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, her elderly mother tries to make a relationship work with a much younger gigolo who enjoys being nude above all else. And, in the most intriguing storyline, Michèle tries dodging rumors that have followed her since elementary school: that she served as an assistant to her father, a notorious serial killer, who is in jail and trying to make contact with her again.
Again, this unusual tone isn’t for everyone, and the film does fall flat occasionally. It’s also about fifteen minutes too long, with the identity of Michèle’s attacker being revealed somewhat early, and the film struggling to fill time between that moment and the final showdown between the two. But, throughout every scene, star Isabelle Huppert carries the film and delivers a compelling performance. It’s hypnotic work that doesn’t so much make the viewer understand Michèle as it does make them curious to see what happens next.
As big, loud and special effects heavy as his previous films have been, Paul Verhoeven has always had something to say. As cheesy as they may be, Robocop, Basic Instinct and, yes, even Showgirls tried to convey a message to viewers, and dismissing them as brainless feels shortsighted. With Elle, he strips away his artistic flourishes and leaves audiences with a dialogue-driven character study that explores sexual violence and its affect on women in a world where they are not given the chance to properly express their emotions as survivors. It’s easy to understand why someone would want to avoid a film so unflinching and uncomfortable. For those that don’t mind some truly disturbing content, this film offers a lot to think about, and is awfully entertaining in the process.