Sunday, October 16, 2016

“Elle”– Movie Review



At the beginning of the final weekend of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the United States Premiere of the new thriller “Elle”, starring  Isabelle Huppert and directed by Paul Verhoeven. 


When a woman gets raped, will she bring her attacker to justice or find a different way to deal with him?


Michèle (Huppert) is a strong, smart and successful founder of a software company that develops computer games.  Divorced and with a grown son who has yet to find much direction in life, she always has plenty going on in both her professional and personal life – she is never without male companionship, even if that man may be married.  She is a powerful woman in total control of her life and largely unfazed by much of anything that life may throw her way.  However, her fortitude is tested one day when she is brutally raped in her own home after a masked intruder breaks in. 

Rather than report the crime to the police, Michèle instead chooses to ignore the incident and continue with the rest of her life, only revealing the truth to a few close friends; as shocked as they are to hear about what happened to her, they are even more shocked about her casual nature.  As Michèle tries to move forward, she is still haunted by her attack and the identity of her ski mask wearing perpetrator.  Was it someone she knew?  Or was the rapist a complete stranger?  Between all the men she knows in her life, she can’t rule out that she might know her attacker.  On the other hand, it’s entirely possible it could have been a stranger; Michèle is widely hated by her community because of a notorious crime committed long ago by a family member – a crime for which others insist she and her entire family must be ceaselessly punished. 

Other irritations serve as a distraction to Michèle:  her staunchly religious neighbors, the obnoxious employees at her company and her son, who’s moving in with his pregnant girlfriend (even though he may not be the father).  When Michèle suspects a seemingly-unlikely person as the one who may have raped her, she uses her cunning to play a potentially dangerous mind game with him – leading him to believe that she may in fact be in love with him.  But is she right about the identity of her attacker?  And even if she is, will he pay for his crime or will her attempts at manipulating him cost Michèle her life?


Leave it to Paul Verhoeven to make a black comedy about rape.  This might be one of the most controversial movies you’ll ever see on this subject.  “Elle” is sick, twisted, hilarious and tremendously fun.  Will it cause Verhoeven to be forgiven for “Showgirls” or further reviled?  Time will tell, but this is one of the more undeniably original films not only thematically but also because the director is so successfully able to combine genres; additionally, its plot is so intricately textured, each layer peeled back slowly.  The motion picture is over two hours long but you’ll find yourself so involved you likely won’t be looking at your watch. Finally, the cherry on top of this cinematic sundae is its deeply satisfying ending.

It’s noteworthy that “Elle” has an incredible soundtrack, particularly so with multiple uses of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”.  Verhoeven cleverly finds ways to resonate the theme of violence in various scenes – “Do you feel anger or fear?” one developer asks another after viewing a portion of their newest video game.  Michèle catches her cat attacking a sparrow and tries to come to the bird’s rescue (albeit too late, as it turns out).  Of course, there is always the violence inherent in video game they are designing.  Violence, it seems, is irrevocably in Michèle’s life forever – her past, present and likely her future.

As the secrets of Michèle’s past are discovered, it explains so much about why her actions and reactions are the way they are.  She utters the line that best summarizes the story:  “Shame is not an emotion that’s strong enough to prevent you from doing anything”.  The woman is no angel and isn’t making any apologies for that.  Michèle has brilliantly used men arguably more than they have used her and she’s all the better for that.  She stands her ground and remains in control at all times – in control of herself, her given situation at the time and in control of others, too.  She is not a victim of rape, she is not a survivor of rape, she is a conqueror of rape.  Huppert’s portrayal of Michèle is nothing short of perfection.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the movie’s star and director.  Huppert said that she had read the book a number of years ago and very much wanted to play the role, communicating this to the French producer.   Verhoeven said the producer gave him the book and he was interested in shooting it although it was a difficult novel to adapt for the screen.  He wanted to do the film in America but every famous American actress turned him down flat – Verhoeven is unsure exactly why but suspects that it is likely due to the many controversial aspects to the story.  Huppert mentioned that it’s very much a woman’s movie because the men are weak or failures.  Verhoven added the religious tones and imagery are intentional – he’s an atheist who admires Jesus so much that he once wrote a book about him. 

Elle (2016) on IMDb

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