Paul Verhoeven has returned, and he has arrived at a distinctly peculiar and promising place. In Elle, the first feature film in 10 years from the Dutch filmmaker most commonly recognized for directing Basic Instinct, Verhoeven fearlessly presents a film with more maturity despite its explicit content. It is a film that is as graceful as it is graceless, as comedic as it is awkward, juxtaposing narrative points of levity amidst the most depraved of circumstances.
Elle follows the eponymous Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), an affluent and professionally successful woman living in Paris who is raped in her home by an unknown assailant. In the moments and days that follow, she appears not to be phased by the violent attack and carries on with her life as if nothing transpired, even casually brushing off the subject of the attack to friends who question her reaction.
In this haunting adaptation of the book “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle faithfully transcribes the original story – presenting masochistic and sadistic elements as comedy in the darkest form. With David Birke’s beautiful screenplay and Verhoeven’s hypnotizing direction, we come to learn more about the beautiful, funny, and dark Michèle Leblanc.
Pussy Grabs Back
The film audaciously opens in the midst of the assault on Michèle. When the attacker leaves the premises, there is a moment of deliberate quiet as she sits up slowly, gazes longingly out the window, and jokingly scorns her cat for not stepping in to protect her. This scene provoked audible gasps in the audience as people awkwardly shifted in their seats, no doubt wondering where all of this can go.
Well, it goes places.
The film has received a great deal of critical acclaim with festival audiences and critics since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and despite my initial hesitations after viewing it at the Chicago International Film Festival myself, I have since come to admire most of its complexities wholeheartedly. So, let this persuade or dissuade you, dear reader, but Elle is a tale entangled in more ‘what the fuck’ moments than I expected from a rape satire. That probably says a lot.
Much in the way the film begins, let us not waste time venturing into the lurid depths of this story. As she goes about the days proceeding the rape, it becomes clear that Michèle is drawn to her mysterious attacker – becoming intrigued by his exploits and attracted to the danger he represents. And so begins a Machiavellian game of cat and mouse in which both cat and mouse are drawn to the other – leaving it ambiguous as to who enjoys the chase more.
Shame On Who?
While the film deals with Michèle’s sexuality, Elle (meaning “she,” or, “her” in French) is not necessarily an erotic film. Verhoeven, who is known for his depiction of eroticism in films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls (the latter, I assure you, is entirely nonsensical), does not intend to arouse his audience. Instead, he explores the role of repression and punishment on sexuality, and further, tries to find the humor in it.
Michèle has a dichotomous relationship with her sexuality. She is simultaneously empowered and held captive by it – living with the amorality of her actions despite not feeling (at least at surface level) a sense of guilt or remorse. An example of this dichotomy is in her secret ongoing sexual relationship with her best friend’s husband, and in a telling conversation between the two women, Michèle states that, “shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.”
Shame is not outwardly expressed by Michèle as she continues on with the affair and leans into flirtation with her married neighbor. However, what lays dormant beneath the surface is a lascivious craving to be punished for it (enter attacker). But the question is: does she feel deserving of punishment because she feels ashamed about her actions or because she feels nothing at all?
The Sins of the Father
To explore the strangeness of this story (and the aforementioned potential for sociopathy) a bit further, we must dive into a challenging territory that, at this point, you may have seen coming. In a grand and shocking act of self-harm, Michèle becomes an ambiguously willing participant in what is an otherwise non-consensual and violent attack. As aptly expressed in the original book…oh…
Michèle’s licentious and masochistic actions involving her attacker are intrinsic to her desire to be punished. Her awareness of her exploitative nature as it applies to her extra-marital affairs and interfamilial relationships is all-encompassing, however she exhibits an ere of nonchalance about it. Despite being a genuinely admirable character (I grew quite fond of her punk attitude), she is compulsive, calloused, and predatory – the apotheosis of her attacker.
If we look at her attacker as allegory, he becomes a reflection of herself; a summation of the self-loathing she feels in response to (what I believe is) her inability to feel empathy or remorse. Repressed within her is the fear that she is just like her father (who we learn early on was a psychopathic killer), and in an effort to understand and combat this dark part of herself, she faces it in a most unconventional way.
Verhoeven likes to challenge his audiences by facing them with the reality of depravity (often in the form of the ever-mysterious sexual power within a woman), and Elle is no exception. He elegantly interweaves refinery with campy exploitation here in a way that is completely unique unto itself. Elle is a seditious and somewhat campy exploitation film veiled in masterful direction and, most notably, in one particularly brilliant performance.
The Role Nobody Wanted
Amidst the great screenplay, direction, and musical score, no greater praise can be attributed to the remarkable Isabelle Huppert. She gives an unforgettable performance that showcases her ability to fluidly showcase an incredibly complex and unflinchingly humorous character. The portrayal of Michèle Leblanc requires complete vulnerability to the craft and to the subject matter, which is undoubtedly challenging.
It is a role that many actresses turned down due to the salacious material, and as Verhoeven appropriately stated in a Deadline interview, “in retrospect, I don’t think this film should have been made if Isabelle Huppert didn’t exist.”
Michèle Leblanc is a layered character. With a successful literary and professorial career behind her, she tenaciously leads a video game development team, tries to help her adult son and his pregnant girlfriend get on their feet, and attempts to maintain a relationship with her eccentric mother. She does all this and more as she deals with the rape in her own unusual way.
Michèle may be many things, but I see her, first and foremost, as a strong an beautiful woman. I love her humorous nature, her confidence, and her steadfast desire to go after what she wants despite the trauma she faced. All craziness aside, I love seeing a powerful female character on screen, flaws and all; it just so happens that Michèle’s flaws are especially fucked up.
A New Direction
Paul Verhoeven has never been much on subtlety. There are, without a doubt, subtleties in many of the performances throughout his filmography, but there are seldom moments in which the absence of sound or action rest in the cinematic space he creates. In Elle, however, he allows moments of stillness to carry the weight of what has transpired – moments like the one in which Michèle gazes out the window after having just been attacked.
These nuanced filmic illustrations merge with scenes featuring a more characteristic Verhoeven-esque hyperrealism. In some scenes, his use of lighting, color, and a very liberal use of a wind machine (you’ll know when you see it), starkly differ from the down-to-earth scenes outside of it. There is an illusory quality to world in which Elle takes place that juxtaposes beautifully with those very grounded moments of stillness.
A Twisted Tale
Elle is a film that embraces its complexities. It is designed to start conversation, challenge expectations, and push boundaries. It is a bewitching film that wishes to engage with its audience by provoking both disquieted gasps and uncomfortable laughter in the most untimely and opportunistic moments.
In her own irrepressible way, Michèle Leblanc is an anti-hero. Despite her questionable ethics and disquieting actions, she is determined to face her demons and carry on with the life that she she has built for her and her son. She is the apotheosis of determination and female power, however alarming her actions may be.
Elle daringly explores the mysteries of female sexuality, repression, and personal triumph in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I cannot stop thinking about this wonderful, perverted, twisted little fantasy of a film, and I sincerely look forward to what the future holds for the new Paul Verhoeven.
Do you plan to see Elle? Please comment below to let me know!
Elle is released in US theaters on November 11th of this year and in UK theaters on February 24th, 2017. You can find a list of more release dates here.
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