Elle – Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is not an easy film to like.  A black comedy/thriller based around a brutal rape and the female victim’s eventual revenge is bound to be contoversial.  And it’s debatable whether many other actresses apart from Isabelle Huppert could pull off such a delicate balancing act.  Aside from the plot, Verhoeven casts an almost impossible array of grotesque characters. These include Michèle’s (Huppert) botox-filled, aged mother and her toy boy lover, an ultra-Catholic neighbour, a milksop son and his overbearing, agressive girlfriend. Michèle herself  is a complex character who elicits little natural sympathy.  A successful businesswoman used to wielding power, she categorically refuses to have her life altered by the violent attack.  Elle is not a film for fence-sitters. Either the audience buys into Michèle’s reaction to the rape or it finds Verhoeven’s cat-and-mouse antics between victim and agressor misogynistic and way out-of-line.  Either way, Huppert’s performance is flawless. She is the mistress of cool detachment used to perfection here. And she handles the dark comedy beautifully, delivering some excellent one-liners in a deft, throw-away fashion and exuding disbelief with a mere lift of an eyebrow.  Love it or hate it, Elle is a shocking look at contemporary sexual politics.

After a savage sexual assault by a masked intruder, Michèle chooses not to go to the police and it’s life as usual as the CEO of a profitable computer gaming company.  Despite the occasional flashback to the attack, she devotes her time to her spineless son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) , her mother (Judith Magre) and her latest gigolo, her wayward husband (Charles Berling), his new girlfriend (Vimala Pons) and her own demanding lover (Christian Berkel). There is also a growing fascination with neighbours Patrick (Laurent Lafitte of the Comédie Française) and Rebecca (Virginie Efira), not to mention her feelings for a father she hasn’t seen in thirty years.  As Michèle tries to deal with the attack on her own terms, she realises she’s being watched and the nightmare is not over yet.
Elle is adapted from the award-winning 2012 novel “Oh…” by French-Armenian writer Philippe Djian and was to be set originally in the US.  Verhoeven himself chose Paris after saying that “no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie”. True or not, Huppert’s outstanding performance was recently rewarded by a Golden Globe for best actress. She is now tipped as a possible nominée for a Best Actress Oscar although interestingly the film itself is not up for a statue. After years spent in the movie-wilderness, for Verheoven fans Elle is a promising return to form.

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