Isabelle Huppert is elegantly transgressive in Paul Verhoeven’s disturbing Elle.
She may be the beauty or the beastby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
What could be the sounds of very rough sex over the titles create a jolting start to Elle. When the screen clears we see that what’s happening is in fact a brutal rape. The black-masked rapist escapes through the open French windows, leaving Isabelle Huppert lying bleeding on the wood floor of her upmarket home amid smashed china. Her reaction is unexpected – she calmly sweeps up the pieces, washes off the blood and orders a takeaway. It’s only days later that she – apparently unconcernedly – breaks the news around a dinner table.
Paul Verhoeven’s dark Elle is a portrait of a complex woman. Isabelle Huppert is Michele, the head of a video games company in Paris that produces violent rape fantasies. She’s tough, self-contained. And there’s something far back in her past that prompts an outburst from a stranger in a cafe and a continued mistrust of the media. It’s a secret that’s gradually revealed, and the way in which she was implicated may be one of the drivers of her behaviour now.
After the rape, Michele receives a text from her rapist. It’s almost a compliment. She doesn’t report the rape to the police but instead, both on her own and with the help of the staff at her company, she determinedly investigates possible rapists in her circle in a kind of whodunnit thread that runs lightly through the film.
Meanwhile, she’s dealing with her complex, often irritating, family relationships. She has a weak ex-husband (Charles Birling) with a new yoga-teacher girlfriend, of whom she’s jealous; a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) with a domineering pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), whom she despises; and a flighty botoxed elderly mother (Judith Magre) who is planning to marry her toy boy.
She has a business partner and friend (Anne Consigny), with whose husband (Christian Berkel) she is having an affair; and she has neighbours that she secretly watches – a handsome banker (Laurent Lafitte) and his religious wife (Virginie Efira). Michele organises a typically French comedy of manners get-together of all of them over a formal dinner at Christmas.
Only an actress as subtle as Huppert could convey Michele’s complexity. She is inscrutable yet her emotions flicker beneath the skin. Outwardly steely, inwardly controlling her desire and sexuality. She can be deliciously nasty. She may be a masochist but she is certainly not a victim. Maybe she experiences shame and guilt, but she says that “shame doesn’t stop you from doing what you want”. Maybe she almost expects what happened to her to happen because of her past and she’s trying to exorcise the memory.
David Birke’s screenplay based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… is a perplexing mixture that refuses to be tied down to any genre and it revolves around an exceptional central performance. Verhoeven, after Showgirls and Basic Instinct, is as provocative as ever but rape-revenge horror-satire Elle is on a different more dangerous and unpredictable, European art-house plane altogether.
Elle premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 10 March 2016 in the UK.