Synopsis: A successful businesswoman gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tracks down the unknown man who raped her. (Source)
Where do I even start with a film like Elle? Adapted from a novel by Philippe Dijon and directed by eternal provocateur Paul Verhoeven, the film is likely to be one of the year’s most shocking and perverse entires, exploring hardened femininity and abhorrent sexual appetites with a sly wink and liberal doses of unease. As always, Verhoeven’s film isn’t what we expect, with characters who never bend to what we want them to be, all while celebrating a twisted heroine who doesn’t settle for being the victim. As Verhoeven dissects gender norms with subversive mastery, his film is nearly impossible to pin down or classify, but wholly irresistible. Star Isabelle Huppert also turns in the performance of a lifetime, owning each scene she’s in with ruthless aplomb as she navigates a cutthroat world of hapless men and inescapable trauma. A rape-revenge thriller on the surface, this film’s got real bite and goes straight for the jugular.
When she leasts expects, a masked intruder forces himself into Michele’s (Isabelle Huppert) home and sexually assaults her. The encounter is brutal, leaving her stunned and bloody on the floor of her own home. Without missing a beat, she composes herself, sweeps broken dishes off the floor and goes to work, where’s she’s the CEO of a prestigious video game company. Though you’d think the event would galvanize her in a more substantial way, Michele seems fairly blasé about the incident, instead channeling that pent up trauma and using it to assert authority within her male-dominated workplace and social life. As she rises above her circumstance, oft-times looked down upon simply for being a woman, she reveals herself as a survivor with impenetrable will, deflecting a myriad of challenges as she runs from a dark past. In a world where every encounter feels like a personal attack, Michele seems unfazed, even as her anonymous attacker resurfaces in the form of vicious cyber attacks and cryptic physical threats. Eventually, a cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Michele determined to stay ahead of her would-be tormenter.
There’s a lot swirling about in Verhoeven’s latest, but what really hits is that it’s a seamless mixture of rousing whodunit, irreverent farce and survivor story. There’s a consistent through line, but the plot plays out by normalizing Michele’s shocking daily activities, rebuffing sexual advances and casual discrimination as she’s objectified and marginalized. Making matters trickier, is the drama surrounding her friends and family, most of whom can barely keep up with their own struggles. Still, this isn’t a story of how Michele is a victim, but rather someone who is very keen to what’s happening around her and how she bends it to her will. She’s cunning and handles everything with an iron-clad resolve, an imposing presence that can be disarmingly charming. Michele’s world is tough, messy and unforgiving, with Verhoeven never pulling punches – her harsh reality is no stranger to simulated tentacle porn, impromptu sexual trysts or physical violence, and the film embraces this with a perverse irreverence, one that is only as arguably deviant as his heroine.
Obviously, a film like this is only as good as its star, and that’s where Isabelle Huppert shines like no other. Roles as complex and meaty as this one are almost nonexistent for women, and Huppert feels right at home. There’s a maturity and ferocity that she hides between each fleeting glance – you can almost feel the whirlwind going on inside of her head. There’s no doubt about it, her character embodies a sense of tragedy, but it’s her ability to transcend it that Huppert really captures. Elsewhere, the cast benefits from supporting roles by Laurent Lafitte as Michele’s caring neighbor Patrick, Anne Consigny as her close confidant, Anna, and a few others.
I’ve managed to be coy about most of Elle’s details, because it really is a reactionary film that toys with our perception and the way we imagine things to be. That being said, Verhoeven’s film is bound to spark tons of conversation and is a lightning bolt that will get audiences talking about the lines of propriety between men and women, social norms and the tenuous bond between the sexes. Just like its heroine, the film is gutsy and uncompromising, resulting in an eye-opening experience that’s wholly unique – you’ll laugh, shudder with fright and find yourself inexplicably caught up in its danger.