Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
This isn’t going to be a very good review of Elle. I’m sat here behind the dashboard of this blog with the cursor blinking at me expectantly, still trying to shape my feelings about Paul Verhoeven’s latest, but it’s like trying to lay foundations for a building on shifting sands. Every time I think I’ve found purchase it’s moved away from me again. This in itself is likely a positive testament to the work, the latest provocation from a director known for provocation, who wears that reputation as a badge of honor, and good for him. But I can’t shake the underlying suspicion that, put simply, I just didn’t like his film.
It has a lot going for it. Chiefly it has Isabelle Huppert, one of the greatest acting talents of her generation, diverse and fearless; it is a coup for Verhoeven that he was moved to shoot in France when American backing failed to flourish. That he ended up with Huppert. And it’s a juicy rare steak of a role, too. With the conspicuous paucity of great roles for Women Of A Certain Age in Hollywood, it still seems curious to me that none of the actors Verhoeven approached in the US to play this part wanted to commit. Perhaps his reputation and the potentially scandalous nature of the material caused a few too many pauses for thought.
Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a video game designer haunted by the sins of her father; a jailed serial killer whose deeds have marked her like a homicidal scarlet letter. The film opens with her being raped in her own home by a masked intruder. The audience braces themselves as the production icons are replaced by a black screen, her screams and the sounds of struggle. For her own reasons, following the assault, she does not report it. She tidies up. She bathes, washing away evidence. She compartmentalises the event and carries on.
This in itself is not shocking, in fact, it’s wholly understandable, and not an uncommon choice I’m sure. Whenever rape statistics are banded about in the news, I come to wonder just how many assaults go unreported. One assumes, perhaps, that Michèle is ashamed or embarrassed. Or hasn’t yet decided how to articulate such a profoundly personal trauma. But as we get to know her we come to realise that this isn’t the case at all. Her resolve is steely, she is a caustic, thrillingly unapologetic woman. She pushes against expectations. At work, for instance – an arena of inherent misogyny and harassment – she pushes shrewdly to double-down on how exploitative her product should be. Go harder. Be more gratuitous.
Having been denied the role of victim her entire life, she isn’t about to start now. How does Michèle react? She buys mace. She buys a small hatchet. She readies herself for further violence against her. She waits for an opportunity to retaliate.
There’s a busy array of narrative threads surrounding her. Her son (Jonas Bloquet) is committing to a relationship she cannot understand, using her as a financial crutch; her mother (Judith Magre) intends to remarry, an idea that appalls her; she is having an affair with a colleague at work (Christian Berkel), in the process betraying her business partner (Anne Consigny); her ex-husband (Charles Berling) has a new lover which has the potential to twist the dynamic of their relationship, and there is also her married neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), with whom she is enamoured, and the tentative romantic dance between them.
With escalating evidence that her attacker is someone within this circle, Elle plays engrossing whodunnit for about an hour, in the process returning again and again to that act of horrendous violence, Verhoeven pushes the viewer’s nose in it, relishing our discomfort. In spite of the unease this deliberately provokes, Elle plays as a spiky comedy of manners throughout this section. However, when the culprit is unmasked mid-film, the narrative wanders into queasier territory. Michèle’s reluctance to involve the police is one thing; her investigation of further liaisons with her attacker is another. Elle starts to feel transgressive – hardly a surprise for Verhoeven – but in the process struggles to escape a kind of tawdry tedium as the intent to provoke shock and after-comment stretches out a story that thinks it’s more enjoyable than it is. All of the aforementioned baggage surrounding Michèle needs to be addressed, and its baggage that starts to weigh the film down. It starts to sag. Much as I wanted to feel engaged and challenged by Verhoeven, by the end I mostly felt either bored or disgusted. And I left the cinema perplexed by my response.
It is not that Michèle’s response to what happens to her is unacceptable. Her choices may seem non-standard, but that’s no reason to discredit them. Indeed, David Birke’s screenplay (based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djan) goes to great pains to draw with detail the specificity of her psychology and circumstance. But it is so specific as to leave no room for doubt. Like the joke explained, Michèle feels laboriously tailored in order to allow her choices to be given credit or reasonable excuse. Verhoeven deliberately steps out into a swamp here also. A basement scene recalls the scandal and finger-pointing incurred by Straw Dogs in 1971. In doing so Elle wades into the same muddy waters. At it’s best the film dances with the destructive eroticism David Cronenberg conjured in Crash, but as commonly it feels like the weak sensationalism of holiday paperbacks.
Critical consensus seems to be that this is a great film and one of Verhoeven’s best. For a while I was on board with that. Until I wasn’t. I can appreciate the intention here, that it is a knee to the groin of those eager to seek defined morality judgments from film, and I wholeheartedly respect efforts to break out of pre-conceived boxes. And Huppert is terrific. But Elle struck me as messy, meandering and a bit too joylessly sour, revelling in its own cynicism just a shade too readily. It’s a fine balance but on this occasion I just wasn’t feeling it. I’m glad I was disgusted (I think), and I’m sure I’ll mull just why I felt so for some time (making this film, in a sense, a genuine success)… but it’s an experience I doubt I’ll want to revisit again. Writing this hasn’t helped me. I’m sorry, I’m still lost.