Elle

October 28, 2016
Isabelle Huppert in 'Elle' (2016)
Isabelle Huppert in 'Elle' (2016)

Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven, is a master of electric shock therapy, and in Elle he’s on the job right away. The movie opens with the sounds of glass breaking, thumps and muffled screams. The camera comes creeping around a corner and we find ourselves witness to a vicious rape scene, as Isabelle Huppert struggles with an intruder in a black ski mask.

When it’s over, she stands up, clears away the mess, and takes a bath. A bruise on the side of her face will be explained as a cycling accident. She looks reflective rather than traumatised. It’s clear she won’t be going to the police.

Huppert plays Michele, a successful businesswoman who runs a company that makes violent video games. After the assault she begins to take precautions, buying pepper spray and learning how to shoot a gun, but her composure is unnerving. Out to dinner one night she quietly announces that she’s been raped. While her companions gasp, Michele remains perfectly calm.

As the story unfolds we begin to understand a little more about Michele’s state of mind. We learn that her father committed a mass murder in a small town, where she was photographed with him after the crime. Her coldness and toughness appears to be a legacy of these terrible events. Or does she have her own touch of psychopathy? She complains during a test screening of a video game that it has to be more shocking, more violent.

Either way she has no desire to spend any more time with the police, or fend off unwanted publicity. Although she is aware the rapist could return at any moment she compartmentalises her fears and tries to deal with the tangles of everyday life. These prove to be considerable: her hopeless son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) has married a crazy, domineering girlfriend and needs help to set up an apartment. Her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling) has begun an affair with a young woman. Her decrepit but oversexed mother (Judith Magre) has taken up with a gigolo.

Michele has her own difficulties, conducting an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her business partner; flirting with her handsome neighbour (Laurent Lafitte), who is married to a Catholic obsessive; and finding out who created an obscene hoax video that has done the rounds of the office.

In his first French-language film, one marvels at how quickly Verhoeven has come to grips with French cinema! For the man who gave us features such as Robocop and Showgirls, he’s managed to cram more thrills and twists into Michele’s domestic life than both those movies combined.

The first two-thirds of Elle keeps us guessing as to the identity of the rapist. There are several candidates but it’s not too difficult to figure out the culprit. The last part of the film becomes a psychological duel between Michele and her attacker, as she plays a hazardous game.

It is this aspect that divided audiences and critics in Cannes, who dubbed the film a “rape comedy”, and couldn’t decide if Michele’s actions represented a strong woman taking control of a frightening scenario; or whether she was a male director’s fantasy of female masochism. Neither scenario fits comfortably into the accepted genre conventions. No exploitation film ever had a character so composed as Michele. No feminist revenge saga could allow for a heroine so complicit in her own degradation.

Looked at from an ideological standpoint, Elle is a very uncomfortable experience. In every other aspect it’s an absorbing, thrilling, darkly comic movie, with an excellent script by David Birke and an appropriately moody score by Anne Dudley.

No-one could have been better cast as Michele than the fearless Isabelle Huppert, who has spent her entire career playing women on the edge, from the deranged Erika Kohut in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), to a host of murderous characters in Claude Chabrol’s movies.

The ambiguities of Michele’s personality never allow us to feel we have completely understood her feelings and motivations. She is a supremely competent businesswoman who rules like a queen over an office full of young males. She spends a lot of time humouring her weak-willed ex-husband, who has failed to make it as a novelist; and dealing with a son who never seems to have graduated from adolescence.

Michele takes her sexual pleasures where she can, with no particular concern for moral niceties or loyalty to others. Everything is treated as an experiment in life which has to be tried, if only to be discarded.

This attitude extends even to the rape, which seems to touch some deeply buried need. It would be easy to see this as a legacy of the monstrous memories of her childhood or a release from the mastery she is expected to display in her professional and private lives. In reality, Michele cannot to be summed up by such amateurish psychologising. As the opaque title of the film suggests, “she” remains a mystery to those around her, and perhaps to herself. For a film today to portray a woman with such complexity seems a much greater achievement than any amount of feel-good, feminine empowerment.

Elle
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by David Birke, after a novel by Philippe Djian
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Judith Magre, Virginie Efira, Alice Isaaz
France/Germany/Belgium, rated MA 15+, 130 mins

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29th October, 2016.