Paul Verhoeven’s long-awaited first film in a decade makes compelling drama out of glorified B-movie material thanks to Isabelle Huppert’s gonzo performance and Verhoeven’s typically forthright direction.
After being raped in her apartment, video game developer Michèle LeBlanc (Huppert) receives a series of taunting texts from the assailant, yet rather than involve the authorities, she goes about attempting to deduce the culprit by her own means.
Certain to be one of the year’s most controversial films as viewers struggle to decide whether Elle is indeed a feminist statement or merely sordid exploitation, it is either way a compellingly fearless rape-revenge thriller that probes deep into the psychology of sex, violence and control.
While Michele’s investigation maintains a surface level of dishy intrigue, it’s the character herself who really propels the film forward, a frequently difficult, cold and standoffish person whose reaction to the rape is both puzzling and fascinating. As more information unfurls about Michele’s past, much of it mired in and defined by violence, it becomes easier to draw a convincing – though certainly not definitive – psychological profile, with audiences free to read as much or as little into it as they so wish.
Huppert is the prevailing reason Elle works as well as it does, hurling herself headlong into an unexpected role and doing more with the character than just about anyone else probably could. She readily and often unflatteringly embraces the weirdness of David Birke’s script, which wholly encompasses the very contradictions that define human existence.
Verhoeven, meanwhile, continues to prove himself a master provocateur with a tight directorial job, effortlessly sustaining the 130-minute run-time thanks to sharp pacing and framing that suggests a certain infatuation with Huppert (and who can blame him?).
There seem to be two main camps planting their flags for and against this movie; it’s either an Earth-shattering masterwork, or it’s misogynistic garbage. What if, in fact, it’s neither? Rather, Elle just might be a well-executed thriller that, in lesser hands, certainly wouldn’t be scooping up the festival and awards buzz it currently is, because without Verhoeven and Huppert, the script in isolation likely wouldn’t predict such electrifying results.
Elle premieres at the London Film Festival on October 8th