D: Paul Verhoeven / 131m
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor
“She” of the title is Michèle Leblanc (Huppert). Michèle is divorced – from Richard (Berling) – has one adult son, Vincent (Bloquet), runs a video games company with her best friend, Anna (Consigny), is having an affair with Anna’s husband, Robert (Beckel), and lives alone with her cat. She is independent, self-assured, and a little reserved around others. And then, one day, a masked intruder breaks into her home and rapes her. But Michèle’s response to this isn’t typical. She cleans up the mess made during the attack, and carries on with her life as if – outwardly at least – nothing has happened.
Inwardly, though, Michèle begins to wonder if her attacker is someone she knows. At first she thinks it might be one of the designers at the company, some of whom don’t like her for her abrasive, no-nonsense attitude. She buys some pepper spray, and a small axe that she takes to sleeping with. But all the while she tells no one what’s happened, not even her mother, Iréne (Magre). She and her mother, though, have other issues. Iréne wants Michèle to visit her father, who is prison for mass murder, but Michèle wants nothing to do with him. The murders occurred when she was ten, and afterwards, her father involved her in the aftermath, something she has never forgiven him for.
Because of this, Michèle refuses to involve the police, as it will also stir up memories of the past and she will again be the subject of press attention. When it becomes clear that her attacker isn’t one of her male employees, it seems as if it could be anyone. But when she is attacked again by the same masked intruder, she is able to defend herself and pull off his mask. Her attacker proves to be someone she knows, but again, she doesn’t report it to the police, and she resumes her life, again as if nothing has happened. Instead, she develops a closer relationship with the man, gaining his trust and encouraging him and his sexual desires. Believing her to be something of a kindred spirit, he also believes their relationship will continue, but Michèle has another plan entirely…
It’s entirely likely that, if you’re a feminist, you’re not going to like Elle. It’s main character is raped, but doesn’t report it; in fact, she gets on with her life as if nothing has happened. And later, when she knows the identity of her attacker, she begins a complicit relationship with him where his raping her gives him sexual satisfaction (while she doesn’t even get any masochistic pleasure out of it). And when she does admit to her friends that she’s been raped, she’s so matter-of-fact about it, and so dismissive of their concerns, she might as well not have told them for all the difference it makes. In short, she’s not reacting in the way that a woman who’s been raped should react; she’s not behaving in the way that she should behave.
At Cannes last year, where the movie was first shown, Elle was branded a “rape comedy”, an invidious term that was trying to be clever but which does have some relation to Elle’s complex, unflinching narrative. While the rape itself is sufficiently horrible (even when it’s only heard at the movie’s beginning, it’s still disturbing), it’s not the whole movie. As we begin to learn more about Michèle, humour begins to creep into the material, and largely from the way in which she interacts with her family and friends and colleagues. She’s caustic when she feels it’s necessary, and this leads to us smiling at her behaviour, and appreciating her all the more. She’s not letting being raped define her, or hold any power over her; and when she suspects one of her staff, she takes charge and does her best to find out who it could be. Like it or not, Michèle is being proactive, but in a way that we don’t often see in movies, even in so-called rape-revenge flicks.
Of course, there’s a strong psychological element to all this that drives the movie forward, with Michèle’s past informing and determining her present, and the feelings that she’s not quite in touch with. Part of the strength of the movie is the way in which it refuses to confirm or deny just what Michèle is doing, or how she’s feeling. It’s left to the viewer to decide for themselves what her mindset is – but be warned, for the most part you’re likely to get it wrong. This is also due to an absolutely magnificent performance by Huppert that is a masterpiece in delicate emotional shading. Verhoeven has praised Huppert for bringing things to the character of Michèle that he would never have thought of, and the actress – as ever – is fearless in the role, and endlessly inventive. It’s an hypnotic portrayal, fascinating and complex, and she doesn’t miss one single emotional beat throughout the entire movie. If there really is such a thing as “being true to the character”, then Huppert achieves that, and does it with consummate skill.
But while Huppert gives a stunning, tour-de-force performance, she’s matched in directorial terms by Verhoeven, here making what many regard as his best movie. (Away from his fantasy and sci-fi movies they’re right; otherwise an equal number of people will say that RoboCop (1987) is his best movie.) The Dutch director effortlessly weaves together the main storyline and its various subplots with the same consummate skill that Huppert brings to the role of Michèle. Thanks to Verhoeven’s sureness of touch, Elle remains endlessly provocative as a psychological drama, and equally riveting as a daring thriller. He also treads a fine line between the aforesaid drama and the movie’s humour, expertly blending the two elements into an unforgettable whole. As the story unfolds, and Michèle’s actions become clearer, the veteran director still manages to use the material at hand to wrongfoot the audience and keep them guessing – a neat trick in this day and age of Internet transparency.
There will be some who will write this off as just another revenge movie, but that isn’t the movie’s raison d’etre. Instead it’s about a woman taking a courageous and difficult route to self-empowerment; and she does it all on her own terms. This is to be applauded, whatever the circumstances, and in the hands of the masterful Huppert and the on-form Verhoeven, Elle paints a vivid portrait of how one woman strives for and maintains her own unique place in both a grossly misogynist workplace, and in the wider world at large. It’s often uncomfortable to watch – after Michèle is raped she has a bath, and blood rises to the water line, a terrible indication of just how violent the attack was – and it offers no easy answers, either in terms of whether or not Michèle’s reaction to being raped is the right one (whatever that is), or whether her search for her attacker is motivated by revenge or curiosity or a mixture of both. It’s a movie that is likely to provoke intense debate for some time to come, but even if it does, one thing is for sure: this is a movie that won’t be forgotten too easily by anyone who sees it.
Rating: 9/10 – a superb thriller unjustly snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Elle is a brilliant, elaborate movie that doesn’t pull any of its punches, and makes a virtue out of being uncompromising; with a daring, exceptional performance by Huppert, and Verhoeven fully in command of the material, the movie deserves every bit of praise it’s received so far, and should be on many people’s Top 10 lists come the end of the year.