You’ve never seen a film like Elle, nor a role as uniquely and hauntingly inhabited as Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc.
Paul Verhoeven’s first French film has an interesting genesis: producer Saïd Ben Saïd brought Verhoeven Philippe Djian’s novel, which the director loved, and the pair prepared to make the film in America. Oh… was translated, the script completed, and a number of A-List actresses read the script; all turned it down. Verhoeven believes it was because Elle‘s final act isn’t about revenge (in an American film, revenge would be “necessary”); in fact it goes in quite a strange and “diametrically opposite direction.” Whatever the reason, Michèle was clearly meant for no one but Huppert. Her sublime, bravura performance in this twisted tale culminates in a rarely achieved euphoric finale that leaves the audience questioning every aspect of the human condition, minds roiled in Elle‘s after-effects for days. At Cannes, where Elle competed for the Palme d’Or, the film received a 7-minutee standing ovation, and Huppert’s consummate portrayal is worthy of every last second.
There is nothing to quite prepare you for Elle; simplistic synopses are misleading. The film is fueled by intense emotion, ranging from fear and horror to helpless sadness, and remarkably witty humor … dark uncomfortable laughter will twist in your gut, and sly, winking snickers, too. Verhoeven’s use of dual cameras brings the audience unnervingly close to violence, jarring assault, rape, murder, and small bits of gore. There were moments I physically shrunk in my seat, involuntarily flinched, winced, teared up, and, along with the large crowd surrounding me, heartily guffawed. It makes absolutely no sense to think of giggling within moments of terrible violence; brain and heaving chest have little idea what thoughts and feelings they are attempting to process; it is simply out of our control. The experience is often unpleasantly visceral. Who can say how one should react, but, during Elle‘s rollercoaster 130 minutes, do not fear to put yourself in this vulnerable position, into Huppert and Verhoeven’s expert hands.
Elle opens with an unseen assault that will trick a mind into believing it saw more than what was actually onscreen; a startled, if not indifferent cat, broken glass … the fabric tablecloth being wrenched from its host. Afterwards, we’re properly acquainted with Michèle, who is shocked, but hardly shaken from her carefully curated life. Partnered with her good friend Anna (Anne Consigny), Michèle owns and runs a successful video game company, managing the heavily millennial male-populated group of employees with the same wry humor she uses around her impossibly immature son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his horrible girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), to deal with her entertainingly minxish mother, Irene (Judith Magre), who, in her 70s decides, to marry her decades-younger lover. Michèle is surrounded by, shall we say, assholes who, if not directly related to her, are still very much her inner circle of strange relationships; as we’re introduced, and each individual presented, all but Anna are selfish and in some way; dismissive. Michèle responds in her own refreshingly unique way, aggressive and, at times, mocking. But these are her people, and, as bits and pieces of Michèle’s puzzle come together, it is almost understandable she keeps them around. It is not until her world has unfolded, invited us in, and our guard is dropped, that the camera sees fit to fill in around the awful sounds that began the story.
Her rape is hardly the worst Michèle has suffered; she brushes it aside like the shards of glass mechanically swept into a dustpan, neatly dumped in a bin alongside the other horrors. She doesn’t report it, washes away all but a single prominent bruise; but, in an empty house, the little things haunt; after an amusingly half-hearted kitty scolding, Michèle takes measures to protect herself, a wise and prescient decision.
The night is dark and full of terrors; her office — full of seemingly angry, or perhaps too-attentive young men — is no longer a haven, and a technologically employed joke (threat?) means her attacker could be anywhere; anyone. Michèle is no victim, though, and, in Huppert’s confident and nuanced hands, the twist and turn of events are all perfectly executed as if Michèle had casually — carefully — placed gorgeous settings at her table for each of her dimwittedly dull guests. One by one, they parade to where, surely (probably not, but it feels as if), she meant each person to be, unaware of consequences no one ever sees coming. Huppert’s instinctual ownership of Michèle’s psyche is in her every expression, the upturned corner of her mouth in an escaped almost-smile — or is it regretful? — the hurt in her darting glance. Michèle’s utter command of each arising situation, humorous or devastating, is wholly indicative of her true nature. In Huppert and Verhoeven’s unflinching, daring, and unafraid telling, Michèle has all the power; she is the force to be reckoned with. A woman is triumphant, but what else is she?
History is presented, these happenings occur, and rather than serve our psychological digestif, actress and filmmaker happily leave the audience to its own desserts, just as they put their trust in each other. During a Q & A following its NYFF screening, Isabelle Huppert said that, while she and Paul Verhoeven discussed technicalities (he storyboarded every scene) and the choreography of physical acts, they never spoke about her approach to Michèle, what either of them thought the character would have in her mind, or why Michèle did the things she did. “We thought we had a kind of burning material between our hands, and in order to set fire to it, we had to leave it as virgin as possible ….” Verhoeven was “often completely in awe of the way Isabelle basically did this part. Normally, when I was looking at the video, directly at the scene, I knew that the scene had ended, but I couldn’t say ‘cut’. I mean, it was so beyond what was on the paper, beyond what was in my head, and all that stuff that Isabelle added to the movie, basically you have seen it, especially in an emotional way” (Cue the Best Actress Oscar buzz, which has already started).
Paul Verhoeven has made an interesting cross-section of movies ranging from Robocop and Total Recall to Basic Instinct, and from Starship Troopers to Black Book, but as the Dutch director put it himself, “I’ve never done anything like this.” Rape is obviously an extremely sensitive subject, the mere mention of which can send some crawling inside themselves, and leaves others unable to even approach. This is not a movie for everyone; however, neither would I call this a movie about rape. Rather, it is a spectacular character study, unlike that of any woman I’ve seen, and there is nothing conventional in her tale.
Elle been chosen as France’s Oscar submission this year. The supporting cast includes Anne Consigny, Christian Berkel, Charles Berling, Jonas Bloquet, Laurent Lafitte, Judith Magre, Alice Isaaz, Virginie Efira, Lucas Prisor, and Arthur Mazet; it opens in US theaters beginning November 11th.
This review was originally published October 20th.