This confronting French revenge film is anchored by a magnificent lead performance.
The latest effort from RoboCop, Showgirls and Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven, Elle is a rape-revenge film — or a rape-anti-revenge film, perhaps. It's also a movie calculated to conjure some laughter, as surprising as that may seem given the topic at hand. The narrative's focus on a sexual assault victim's behaviour after her attack, and the incredulous reaction audiences may have thanks to more than a few awkwardly comedic moments, are closely linked. Bringing the aptly named novel Oh... to the screen, Verhoeven not only unpacks unpleasant experiences, but makes viewers confront the urges such experiences can awaken, and the instant, often inappropriate responses that come with them.
It's an ambitious aim, particularly in a thriller steeped in sexual exploits both forceful and consensual, not to mention one heavily reliant upon perfecting the right mood and tone. Peppered with the kind of chuckles that sometimes spring from nerves and discomfort, it's one that the movie achieves on an intellectual rather than an emotional level. Elle will get you thinking and reacting, but not always feeling. And while that might be fitting given the psychological realm the movie willingly plays in, it's also unintentionally distancing.
The film's title refers to Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), an executive at a video game company readying a new erotically violent release. After an intruder forces himself upon her and then flees, Michèle goes about the rest of her day. When the subject of her attack comes up, she steadfastly, matter-of-factly refuses to go to the police. Being plunged into the depths of physical assault, however, leaves her intrigued and even somewhat emboldened as she embarks on a mission to track down the perpetrator.
While Elle isn't as violently or sexually excessive as some of Verhoeven's earlier efforts — and definitely proves more restrained in its visual style — the Dutch filmmaker has sly fun with subverting the expected in his first French-language feature. From the moment the movie opens with heated grunts that could just stem from energetic lovemaking (though they don't), he toys with content, with convention and with his audience. It's not quite a case of nothing being as it seems. Instead, everything that happens inspires many, many questions. That includes Michèle's behaviour and backstory, the several other complicated relationships involving her friends, her son and her ex-husband, and Verhoeven's ability to combine nuance in some moments with a sledgehammer lack of subtlety in others.
Huppert clearly relishes the loaded territory she's playing in, and proves the real reason Elle demands attention. Although the film itself often lets its interesting perspective do the heavy lifting, its star is an absolute revelation. Or she would be, were it not for the five decade's worth of incredible performances in her ledger already. Still, operating at her absolute best, she's the complex, commanding core of a movie that's purposefully challenging in a number of senses — sometimes successful, sometimes not.