Elle (2016) by Paul Verhoeven
Review by Lydia Creech
It’s… complicated, which sounds reductive. It’s off-putting, which sounds reactionary. It’s “also a comedy,” according to star Isebelle Huppert. Thank God for Huppert. Her performance as Michèle is truly incredible (one of the best of the year) and gives the audience something to hold on to.
The opening is rough. Over a black screen, we hear glass break, a woman scream, a man grunt; the camera comes up and shows us the aftermath of a vicious sexual assault. Huppert lies prone on the floor while her masked attacker zips up and runs off. It’s stomach churning, and this is only the first scene.
Verhoeven has told the story multiple times of how he attempted to make Elle as a Hollywood movie, and he shopped the part of Michèle around to several A-list actresses, only to be flatly rejected by all of them. He cited the quoteunquote unusual reaction Michèle displays after her rape—which I initially took to mean the next few scenes—she gets up, cleans up, and orders sushi, as perhaps the reason all the American actresses said no. However, after seeing the film in full and thinking about who Michèle is, I see he is referring to her other reaction to her rape (pin that, we’ll come back to it on the podcast once the film goes wide). After all, Michèle is a woman with Shit To Do; how else is she supposed to react? She runs a video game company staffed with young men who both hate her and lust for her, she has an idiot son, a neurotic mother, several ex- and ongoing affairs, and she has no time to go to pieces.
Elle is more than a film about a woman who is raped (“also a comedy”), it’s about her as a woman, her relationships, and her life. This is why Huppert’s performance is so vital. Every small gesture or pause is so careful and says so much, so much that couldn’t possibly in the script. It all has to rest on her shoulders, and she carries the whole thing beautifully. Verhoeven says he and Huppert did not discuss character psychology during shooting, and this is something else I am grateful for. Huppert’s performance only hints at what may be driving Michèle; to put too definite motivations could render the whole story trite. There are clues for the audience to follow, but I am positive different people will put different, yet equally valid, motives to Michèle and her reaction.
And what reaction is that? I knew this going in from Verhoeven’s introduction, so I hope this isn’t too big of a spoiler, but around Act Two, Michèle discovers her attacker’s identity, and the movie does NOT turn into a rape-and-revenge film. I believe this is the reason American actresses turned this role down, not the act of the opening rape itself. The remaining narrative goes totally against Hollywood sensibilities. I have my reservations about rape as a plot point, and reservations about the whole rape/revenge narrative in particular (reservations I know Hollywood doesn’t share, simply by the fact that the genre even exists as a thing I can point to). So, when Verhoeven doesn’t go there—in fact, goes several steps to the left of there—that is where his reputation as a transgressive filmmaker comes into play. I still don’t know how I feel about it. Verhoeven says he wasn’t intending to make a statement about rape or rape narratives, but the theme is there, and it has to be wrestled with. He put his trust in Huppert to be able to tread the fine line between horribly offensive and complex but engaging, and I think the audience can, too.
I’m DYING to discuss the particulars, so once it opens wide, I’m sure you’ll hear more on the podcast.