by Stephen SheaBefore I get into the review, a quick warning about Elle for those who are victims or survivors of sexual assault or are very sensitive to the issue: this movie will definitely not be for you, as the themes explored and the graphic and unflinching nature of the film will be a turn off. But people react to sexual assault in different ways and Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a film that depicts a reaction to such violence that comes from a new and intriguing perspective.
Isabelle Huppert portrays a game developer named Michèle who is raped, and the film is about her dealing with the ramifications of the assault in the days and weeks afterward. We see her scramble to pick up the pieces as she tries to figure out the perpetrator’s identity and get revenge on him. That being said, this is not a standard tale of revenge, and that’s what makes it one of the most refreshing films I’ve seen this year. And as someone who has seen many of Verhoeven’s films, Elle ranks among his very best.
Huppert gives a phenomenal performance. The film is practically a one-woman show, with Michèle at the center of every scene. However, this leads me to my only real criticism, which is that the supporting characters feel a little underdeveloped because they never really get too much to do outside of being distractions from Huppert’s character. That aside, this is a female driven film about sexual assault that is rarely seen. What is notable about Michèle is that she may be a victim of sexual assault, but she is portrayed as more than that label. She is sleeping with her best friend’s husband, she tries to have an affair with her neighbor (who is married), and she’s very blunt about her son’s awful girlfriend to a point where she comes off as insensitive to his feelings. She’s also plagued by an instance of trauma from her childhood. Due to actions carried out by her father, she and her mother have come to be hated by people who remember her father’s deeds. We first learn something is off when a woman dumps food on Michèle at a restaurant after she recognizes her.
Huppert should be given props for going through with some of the horrible rape scenes that her character endures. They are incredibly graphic and brutal. She conveys the horror perfectly, screaming and writhing on the floor until the attacker is chased off. She subsequently puts everything back in place and returns to her normal life still disturbed, but with a bizarre calmness to her. Huppert shows great range, as she is also surprisingly funny in the film. This drew some controversy at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and the film was called out for being a “rape comedy” and insensitive towards victims of sexual assault. I didn’t find it very offensive, although the relationship between Michele and her attacker is particularly uncomfortable.
Verhoeven has been known for directing great sci-fi action films like Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers as well campy sexual thrillers like Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. Elle leans more toward the category of a sexual thriller, but it’s more dramatic than Verhoeven’s previous films. It is more intelligently written, with one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen in a long time. While Huppert’s character is a very sexual woman, she is never judged for that. She is nothing like a Catherine Trammell type, who uses sex for power, or like the women in Showgirls, who are demeaned and exploited. The film is an interesting departure from the genre.
As previously mentioned, one of the most shocking parts of the movie is Michèle’s atypical relationship with her attacker. She finds out who he is and continues to allow herself to be around him because she, like the viewer, wonders why he did this to her and is intrigued by him. Michèle sees the assaults as a challenge and she finds a thrill in figuring out her attacker’s motives.
Elle is one of the most deftly handled films I’ve seen dealing with the subject of rape. It’s a thought-provoking, fresh take on how women can react to assault and Isabelle Huppert’s performance ranks up there with Natalie Portman’s in Jackie and Viola Davis’s in Fences as one of the best of 2016.
5 out of 5 stars