by Richard Hamer
You come to Elle with certain assurances of its quality: Dozens of awards for both the movie and its lead, Isabelle Huppert. It’s Palme d’Or nominated and, most recently, Golden Globe winning. And yet, to watch it is to remain – even now – heavily conflicted as to its merits. It’s jarring, often unpleasant, and so unflinching in its comedic portrayal of serious subject matters that it feels all but purpose-built to push the buttons of your average, card-carrying liberal male. Leaving the screening, my first text reads “I think I hated it”. Now, sat at a keyboard a few days later to write this review, I’m about to tell you how much I loved it.
Let’s start at the beginning: Michèle Leblanc, the wealthy head of a successful video game studio, is raped in her home one day by a masked intruder. But she doesn’t tell anyone. Unbeknownst to some, Michèle is the daughter of a famous mass murderer, and the experience she had with both the media and the police has left her distrusting of both. She sets out to uncover her rapist’s identity alone, simultaneously navigating a complex web of personal relationships: Michèle is having an affair with one colleague’s husband while carrying on a flirtation with another (this time her neighbour’s). Her largely male colleagues are resentful of her authority. Her son is incompetent and his wife domineering. Her mother – elderly and engaged to a man many decades her junior – is a source of constant revulsion.
In short, Elle is a fascinating and gleefully ‘immoral’ (and the quote marks are important, because if there’s one message Elle consistently delivers, it’s the banality of that word) tapestry of sexual freedom and romantic failure. It’s the triumph of powerful women over weak men, in a world where every traditional relationship is failed or failing. Even the fact of Michèle’s rape is treated in this way: She is the victim, but she doesn’t behave like one. The act of rape is the assailant’s weakness, and in the process of uncovering and – ultimately, hopefully – destroying him, it becomes her strength over him.
That all of this is presented as a dark comedy is both where Elle secures itself as a daring and modern classic, and where it starts to become troublesome. This is a frequently hilarious movie, electrifying and unapologetic in how it dares you to laugh at what are some of the darkest sides of humanity. Elle is not a ‘rape-comedy’ – there is so much more to it than that – but it is nonetheless a comedy that features repeated and quite violent scenes of rape.
And debating where you fit alongside that idea is one of the key strengths of this film. Its transgressions are either towards the pursuit of a greater message of a woman’s freedom from man, or they are crass, controversial imagery thrown around with just enough art to inspire naval-gazing reviews like this one. That Michèle’s reaction to her rape feels – based on everything I know and everything I’ve read on the subject – utterly divorced from reality still troubles me, as does the fact that it is a film both written by and directed by a man that chooses to employ such imagery, and purports to deliver onto women such a strong feminist (or post-feminist, in Huppert’s words) message.
So it’s not an easy film to unpack, and that’s OK. Any discomfort you have with the material is essential to the experience – to its transgressive nature – and in the end I believe its message to be a positive one.
At the very least, as a piece of movie-making craft, there is so much to enjoy here: Isabelle Huppert deserves every award she’s got for a mesmerising performance that is deadpan, yet simmers beneath the surface with a fierce and unflinching intent. The cast that surrounds her are all ridiculous individuals, yet each brilliant in their own way. The directing is moody, tight, but unshowy; Verhoeven knows well enough to just let the characters do the talking here. The camera fades into the background.
Elle is a fascinating, essential movie. In its surreal combination of rape/revenge thriller, relationship comedy and feminist drama, Verhoeven has created something truly unique. A movie that transcends genre and plays fast and loose with expectations of taste and decency. It’s a movie that – much like the character at its centre – doesn’t beg for your acceptance and approval, and is what it is and does whatever it wants to do.