You’d think by age 78 that firebrand Dutch director Paul Verhoeven would venture less into areas most filmmakers would never dare, but you’d be wrong. With Elle, Verhoeven’s first film in a decade, a rape-revenge fantasy thriller unfolds with generous drops of comedy and subtlety. While many filmmakers have explored and exploited similar transgressive territory, in Elle, Verhoeven is careful to indicate that the comedy never comes from the appalling crime, that rape is never a joke.
Adapted by David Birke from the 2012 novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle details the highs and lows of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert, brilliant), the successful CEO of a video game company as she tries to ascertain the identity of the scumbag who raped her.
Huppert’s performance is both muscular and emphatic and something of a chef-d’oeuvre from this already well-established dame of French cinema, and this should cinch her an Oscar nomination at the very least.
Her character, Michèle, is a complex woman, and that her father was an infamous mass murderer whose crimes and capture had her growing up amidst much media and public hubris helps to explain her offbeat approach to dealing with her ski-masked attacker as well as her avoidance of going the typical routes most might in a similar nightmare scenario.
Elle is sometimes problematic to watch and no doubt could be very triggering for anyone who’s been a victim of sexual violence, yet Verhoeven charges on, and while the content is considerably brutal, it’s thought-provoking, too. Michèle is no victim and so fearsome and full is Huppert’s performance that she’s able to coalesce seemingly irreconcilable story and character details no matter how excessive Elle threatens to become.
Something of an exciting/offensive miscellany––this is the man who gave us Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) after all––Elle’s ingredients include; eccentric extended-family comedy of manners; sophisticated thriller; mesmerizing psychosexual drama; with inescapable ideas of noxious misogyny as well as being a complicated psychological snapshot of a fiercely independent woman.
You won’t be able to forget Elle or stop talking about it for some time, making it one of 2016’s most disturbing and inventive films from a filmmaker who’s playing to all his strengths. Elle is an alluring and many-sided nightmare that’s more entertaining than it ought to be.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.