Editor Chloe Woods reviews Paul Verhoeven’s latest.
A film with an 18 rating can be as graphic as it likes. Elle doesn’t take advantage of that; not right away. It keeps its violence beneath the surface, lurking, waiting to burst through at the most unsettling moments. At all times we are acutely aware of its hidden presence and the fragility of the things that mask it: the rules and patterns of everyday life which hold only so far as everybody involved agrees they will. And if this threat of violence haunts the life of Elle’s central character more vividly than it does most of our own, it is reflected in her own chilling psyche. This is not a film to see if you want to continue believing that people are, or perhaps should be, essentially good.
Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), the wealthy founder of an acclaimed video game company, is raped in her home by an unknown attacker. Elle opens with this initial attack and follows Michele through the weeks and months afterwards; the film might be best described as a character study exploring a woman’s response to assault in the context of her everyday life. It’s not about rape, or not only about rape, and yet it is. Sex, and the power plays inherent to sex, permeate the film. Michele is hardly an innocent in this regard: it’s clear she has long been willing to wield her sexuality as one among a range of weapons she uses to achieve control over her world. Following the opening rape, it’s this loss of control which she finds traumatising, rather than a sense of violation or shame. (“Shame,” as she puts it, “is not a strong enough emotion to stop you doing anything at all.”) A series of subtle and less-than-subtle actions serve Michele in her attempt to regain her usual equilibrium and self-determination; she’s not interested in revenge, but when it becomes clear she remains under threat, she is willing to resort not only to drastic measures but to those most people would consider, at best, bizarre.
It would be impossible to talk about what these actions actually entail without spoiling the film. Michele approaches the world with a casual dismissal of most social norms or expectations, except when it suits her to follow them, and as a result her decisions at every turn are at once obvious and unforeseeable to any viewer who might struggle to abandon their own understanding of the world’s rules. Michele does not play by the rules. And she does play, both as a game designer, and with people: “one of your traps”, as her ex-husband puts it – and she expects the same of others. Usually such a character, in a film, would be viewed from a distance and allowed to maintain the charade of superiority, of being something more polished and capable than the fumbling humans. Here we meet Michele sweeping up shattered glass in her no-longer-safe kitchen, and understand that for all she is a cold and somewhat terrifying individual, she is one of the fumbling humans too. And that’s all you’d see if you met her in real life.
Isabelle Huppert is wondrous. Of course: Isabelle Huppert is always wondrous – but she’s on top form here, with a particularly meaty and complex role to get her jaws into. The supporting cast is far less memorable – with the exception of Judith Magre in a delightful turn as Michele’s mother Irene – but also, given the focus of the film, less critical. Notably also, Michele’s friend Anna (Anne Consigny) does not receive enough focus for her presence at the end of the film to carry the weight it otherwise might. Perhaps this is deliberate – her own story, only hinted at, is not Michele’s. On a technical level the film must succeed because I did not notice it failing, but Elle’s real strength lies in its writing, both for characterisation and for structure. It feels every bit of its 130-minute runtime yet never drags. The story is spooled out perfectly over the two-hour runtime, ramping up the tension in Michele’s private drama while the lives of the people around her disintegrate and reform with all the absurdity of upper- and middle-class mores falling apart at the seams: here Elle teeters on the edge of caricature but never quite dives in. It also pays lip service to the typical diversionary tactics of the genre (on paper Elle is a psychological thriller; it’s fair to say we’re focusing on the “psychological” here) with regards to the rapist’s identity – and in the process manages to deliver a couple of nasty shocks.
In other words, Elle is very well-made and very good. That’s not the same as saying you should watch it. It has the potential to be baffling, and to induce a great deal of cognitive dissonance in anyone unwilling to abandon their usual ethics long enough to comprehend Michele’s motives and choices. And the movie is, of course, not without its flaws. But I would say it is worth checking out, for the sake of the subtle and interwoven ideas Elle explores about social and individual constructions of power, through sex, through physical violence, through perception – and the arguable irrelevance of anything we might call morality to our decisions. It would take another ten thousand words to pick apart these strands, but they are fairly well-encapsulated in the film’s final image of Michele and Anna walking through a graveyard. As the screen fades, we understand: this is a film about women’s persistence in the face of a world determined to destroy them. And it offers a terrifying vision of who might be best suited to survive.
Elle is out now in UK cinemas, and on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital in select countries. Watch the trailer below: