A French businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) is viciously raped in her home and attempts to carry on with her life as if nothing happened. However, it's not before long that her attacker begins to contact her and a twisted game of cat and mouse begins...
Looking at the broad strokes of Elle, it's easy to see why this film attracted Paul Verhoeven. It's about a beautiful, elegant but impossibly distant woman. It blends sex and violence together in uncomfortable patterns and it'll leave you thinking about it for days afterwards. Right from the very opening shot of Elle, it is full on and clear about what's happening - and the film doesn't, for one second, make anything about itself titillating or erotic. Verhoeven, when doing press for the film, stressed that this wasn't an erotic thriller like his previous efforts. In fact, it's difficult to pin down Elle into any kind of genre because it has so many jarring shifts throughout. In some parts, it's almost like a dysfunctional black comedy, other times it's like a psychological horror, other times still it's like some kind of middle-aged sex drama.
What binds the film together is Huppert's performance as Michéle, who gives off an air of icy disconnection from herself and what happened to her, but also a general disgust about what goes on around her. None of the supporting characters - men, mostly - come off particularly well. Her son, Jonas Bloquet, is a listless idiot who's in a doomed relationship with a domineering young woman that eventually culminates in one of the funniest moments of the film.
Her estranged husband, Charles Berling, is a penniless writer who's in a relationship with a much younger woman whilst her employees are various shades of toxic masculinity and all of whom are viewed as suspect. Yet, for all the evidence of threat, Huppert's character walks undaunted through the scenery and almost toys with her attacker. That reversal of the dynamic is what makes Elle such an interesting film. As the story begins to unfold and each of the characters are developed more, you'll almost start to think that the attacker should be afraid of her rather than the other way around.
All of this sounds like a Verhoeven film, but what's different is that it lacks any of his visual flair or beautiful cinematography. There's nothing slick or gawdy about any of the film like, say, Basic Instinct or Showgirls. In fact, the film almost has a sort of grounded, documentary-esque approach and the script doesn't rely too heavily on exposition to develop. Instead, you're going to a stripped back and pared down version of what makes his work so fascinating. There's layers of satire and black humour to it, mixed with a deep understanding of storytelling. You never feel comfortable watching the film, as the swings through tone keep you constantly on edge. Are you supposed to laugh? Are you supposed to be horrified? If you're questioning yourself, that's the way Huppert and Verhoeven obviously want you to be.
Elle isn't an easy watch and the film offers no simple explanation for itself, but it's one of the most unique and uncompromising films you're ever likely to see. Go see it.
Review by Brian Lloyd | 15:32 | Thursday 9th March 2017 | Movie Review