Short Version: Paul Verhoeven returns to European cinema, with French cinematic icon Isabella Huppert, and gives us modern-day psychological crime thriller that is as dark as it is brilliant.
With the pedigree of the filmmakers and excellent acting, Elle will undoubtedly make waves this awards season. It is surprising that an art-house foreign language film fits perfectly within the programming for Austin’s genre film festival Fantastic Fest – but it does. Watching Elle, you can’t seem to forget Verhoeven is the same director who made the infamous (yes, because of that scene) Basic Instinct and the equally controversial Showgirls. The story of an adulterous businesswoman with a tragic past who is violently raped provokes reactions – and not necessarily what you would expect. The rape scene, which kicks off the first act, is a sudden record scratch for the viewer. The scene is equally violent and affecting. However Huppert’s character, Michèle, despite this brutality, seems very much unaffected afterward. In recounting the events to her ex-husband and best friend; whose husbands she is currently sleeping with, she tells the tale as if giving the details of her latest grocery trip.
After the attack, Michèle robotically patches herself up and embarks on a perverse obsession to discover and seek revenge on her attacker. Her attacker not satisfied with just the initial attack continues to torment her. Contrary to his intention, each email, letter, or communication does not reopen the wound. Instead, Michèle just compiles the evidence as clues to his identity. At this point, the film shifts into a detective story. Michèle continues her search while juggling her various relationships. In every role – as the head of a gaming development company, mother to an unambitious and painfully simple son, or daughter to an eccentric mother – she applies the same dispassionate affectation. The search for your rapist in the hands of another filmmaker would be quite a sad affair, but this is Paul Verhoeven, so there are several laughs. The macabre assists the comedy, and more often than not, the darker the subject, the heavier the laughs. When we do eventually learn the identity of her attacker and the story veers again. To divulge any further would spoil the experience but must say the unmasking of Michèle’s attacker is the most WTH moments I have had in a theater this year. Still reeling from that revelation the audience is then stunned by Michèle’s equally unsettling response.
Michèle’s emotional stagnation appears to be a direct result of her tumultuous childhood. The narrative of Elle is perpetually shrouded by the gruesome murders her father committed in her youth. The media frenzy that surrounded her family after her father arrest forever links Michèle to his crimes. Similarly to the main character, Michèle, Elle is complicated and enigmatic. It is hard to call the film a thriller, a revenge plot, or even a sex comedy though it bears the markings of all three. Despite over twenty years and twenty credits amassed over his career Verhoeven, has reinvented himself yet again, with a haunting tale that keeps you guessing until the credits role.