French-Language "Elle" Serves Up Twisted Thrills

A gray housecat indifferently watches its female owner brutally raped by a ski-masked intruder. This is the ugly, confrontational opening statement of Paul Verhoeven’s French-language psychological thriller and coal-black comedy “Elle.” Verhoeven, the same Dutch madman behind “RoboCop,” “Showgirls,” and “Starship Troopers,” wants no confusion over the aim of the material, promptly removing the cat from the cat and mouse equation and replacing it with a shrieking, bloodthirsty hyena.

What follows is a provocative, self-satisfied cocktail that few will find as inviting as its director evidently does. But he’s an inimitably talented filmmaker who happens to have a not-so-secret weapon on the frontlines – and perhaps the only actress alive that could effectively anchor such a nasty piece of work.

Said powerhouse, Isabelle Huppert (“Amour”), stars as Michèle Leblanc, a lonely divorcee and video game developer. Michèle comes from an exceptionally dark past (one that’s best left explained by the film itself) that’s incited a strict aversion to police. Consequently, she keeps the initial assault to herself. The prowler soon returns. Ironically, in her rapist Michèle finds a rare occasion to smile: at the thought of bashing his head in. Another wrinkle: rocky relationships with her libidinous mother (Judith Magre) and misguided adult son (Jonas Bloquet) and professional disillusionment make these horrific incidents with her shadowy assailant the most reliable part of her life.

This is, of course, a demented way of approaching the subject matter, and screenwriter David Birke knows it. (His script is based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian.) Every step towards turning Michèle’s rape into rape fantasy is a deliberate stab at viewers, a systematic check of audience lenience that mirrors both the link between Michèle and her attacker and darkness and comedy. There is nothing even remotely funny about rape. Yet the film supposes that comedy can exist or even flourish in a story about rape, pushing an envelope that we eventually come to discover conceals a sharp satiric blade. Soon, two seemingly disparate corners – comedy of social errors and real-life horror – begin to interlock.

As Michèle grows more paranoid, accidentally mistaking her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), she also becomes more engrossed in her real-life horror movie. This turns into an obsession with handsome neighbor and family man Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and the escalation of an affair at work with the power-hungry husband of her best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny). Meanwhile, a mystery guest has edited video game footage to depict an animated goblin raping a woman with Michèle’s face plastered on.

The inevitable big reveal initially comes off a huge disappointment, a wildly predictable turn looking to Huppert to carry the film to the finish line. And yet, it’s followed by some of the picture’s mostly tightly written and directed scenes, no matter how much they buck up against all precepts of believability. Huppert sells the hell out of every last word and gesticulation, putting her full faith in the film’s creative team and being richly rewarded for it.

“Elle” is obviously a challenging watch, but things it has to say about abuse and power and abuse of power are not for the fainthearted – so why should the film at large be? It runs a long two hours and five minutes, stretching its limited storyline past its ideal running time. Still, Huppert is a runaway train that demands our attention, at once strong and helpless, invigorated and depressed. Like a real person.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, Verhoeven’s first film in ten years – and his first deliriously twisted one in much longer – is quite a rebirth for a filmmaker long assumed lost. After all this time, he’s still making films that no one else could – or would – make. Viva la Verhoeven.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 11, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: David Birke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virgine Aefira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet
MPAA Rating: R (for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language)