The shattering of glass and grunting sounds open up Elle (She, French) and by the time the opening credits get over, the heinous act of rape is mid-way, a masked intruder assaulting Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) in her home, violently violating her.
That’s as shocking an opening scene as you’ll ever witness in a movie. A movie that’s not just brave, it’s a thumpingly sizzling homerun portrayal of human choices, behavior, maneuvers, and manipulations. Even more important, it’s a no-holds barred look at a woman’s sexuality, her desires, and her reaction to all that that’s inflicted upon her.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven – yes, the very same gentleman behind brashly exploitative movies such as Basic Instinct and the tepid Showgirls, as well as what might now be termed as B-cult Robocop or the woozily futuristic Total Recall – Elle finds the director operating on a darkly complex level, one that’s so audacious and so visceral, you’re shocked you’re even watching the events unfold. But watch you do, hypnotized by the drama and the terror, as you see how, with a blasé-like demeanor, Michèle makes her next moves and gets into her routine. The only witness to the rape is the lady’s cat, who, with almost an equal detachment, watches the violence, and then scampers away. You put it down to the cat being…well, its regular feline self. But later, you wonder was that it or…?
And there’s lots to ruminate and analyze, as Verhoeven – with writer David Birke, basing the story on Philippe Djian’s novel, Oh… – slowly peels away the story’s layers, unmasking and exposing all the characters that revolve around Michèle. What’s more, every unravel shows up the ghastly side of human nature and domination, even as you get a peek into her past, finally realizing why a lady in a café behaves with Michèle the way she does.
Of the cast, there’s no dearth of character study and top-notch acting. There’s the superb Anne Consigny as Ann, Michèle’s partner at the company they own, that makes grotesquely violent video games. But they are no match to what’s going in the latter’s life. Part of that is the flotsam of a relationship she shares with Ann’s husband, Robert, played with a nasty sexual authoritativeness by Christian Berkel. Irène Leblanc, Michèle’s mother, is played with spirited doughtiness by Judith Magre. There’s Jonas Bloquet who plays Michèle’s son, brilliantly portraying his sandwiched life between his mother and his foul-mouthed, demanding, fiancée, Josie (a thoroughly unlikeable act by Alice Isaaz.)
Add to the darkening smorgasbord Michèle’s ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and his devout Catholic wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira), Irène’s fiancé, and a seethingly hostile employee, Kurt (Lucas Prisor) and you begin suspecting, as Michèle does, almost everyone.
As the protagonist on the qui vive, Isabelle Huppert is the movie’s stunning lighthouse, plunging you into her character’s darkest and deepest desire, while using her binoculars; or when she realizes who the rapist is, and walks a razor-edge line between fantasy and a terrifying roleplay. Huppert is why Elle is the crepuscular triumph it is. You want to give her a cinematic salute for this brave-heart-stopping performance. She trapezes with such strength, whipping out a searing act, exploiting and being exploited at the same time. She’s fiery, all fire as she burns with desire, and then all ice as she plots her revenge.
Adding to the atmosphere is composer Anne Dudley’s symphonic and haunting violins, they the epistemic clouds of danger and violence, making you gasp in devious pleasure, even as Elle singes you and stings you simultaneously, much like the lead actor’s simmering performance.
Director Verhoeven, then, plots a cinematic wonder that dawns upon you only as the movie ends, the climactic killing a fell swoop of reveal – and your mind races back even as you try and retrace to the scene when the wheels of this enterprise began spinning to reach this end. The possibilities are many, and they’re all in your head – and much like you’d jump into an unlit train wagon as it’s leaving the station, it doesn’t matter which one you land into, they all take you the same place – dark, foreboding, and yet irresistibly inevitable.
Elle is rated A (not recommended for folks below 18). Intense sexual scenes and some violence, adult theme.
Director Paul Verhoeven Running Time 2h 10 min
Writers Philippe Djian (novel), David Birke
Stars Isabelle Huppert, Anne Consigny, Laurent Lafitte, Christian Berkel
Genres Crime, Drama, Thriller
Watch the trailer of Elle here: