Paul Verhoeven’s confronting and ambiguous sexual morality play intrigues. Huppert again proves herself one of France’s finest.
In a career full of highs, 2016 is turning out to be quite the vintage from Isabelle Huppert. Radiant in Mia Hansen-Løve’s effervescent and empowering Things To Come, she’s also quite magnificent in Paul Verhoeven’s barmy Palme d’Or-nominated Elle.
Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from the novel of the same name by Philippe Djian, it stars Huppert as Michèle Leblanc, the steely CEO of a computer game company specialising in hyper-violent and sexually graphic titles. There’s a strange kind of irony at play in the shocking opening scene, then, that sees her brutally attacked in her own luxurious Parisian home, kicking and screaming as she’s sexually assaulted by a masked man.
Confronting viewing, we’ll see this scene several times again from slightly different angles and even with different outcomes. What doesn’t change is the very matter of fact way in which Michèle not only gets on with life, but calmly and collectedly plans her revenge, arming up with maximum strength pepper spray and, as an afterthought, a handy axe for good measure. Fantasy replays of the incident include bludgeoning the intruder with a heavy blue pottery ashtray.
Delivered with on-the-nose humour that might be a step too far for some audiences, it shares strange echoes with Things To Come – a strong central female role undaunted by life’s trials, a fractious relationship with a partially estranged mother figure and amusing asides to a cat, to name a few. Michèle admonishes her silken pet for failing to, at the very least, scratch her attacker, if not actually gouge his eyes out.
Becoming a whodunit of sorts, Michèle uses her smarts to track him down. Is it Patrick, the clean-cut Christian and young husband across the road (Laurent Lafitte) or perhaps her crumpled ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling)? Or maybe it’s Christian Berkel as her occasional lover Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny).
Throw in an amusingly played additional adultery subplot involving the cheating partner, Josie (Alice Isaac), of her gormless son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and a horrific incident from the family’s past that hangs heavy over the present and you have a wilfully mischievous movie that takes yet another shocking turn that’s incredibly risky when the attacker is finally unmasked.
Verhoeven, director of Starship Troopers, Showgirls and Basic Instinct, is well up for this kind of visceral sexuality and violence blurred by black comedy. Huppert, an incredible actor, rises to the challenge with gusto, walking a dangerous line in the alarming ambiguity surrounding the extent to which Michèle’s sexual hunger plays a part in what follows, making the audience complicit in a disturbing eroticism playing at the very edges of acceptability.
A dark and stormy film that revels in shock value played with style and smarts, Verhoeven runs with it, holding it squarely in the female gaze. It’s difficult to imagine any actor that would have been quite as successful as Huppert in mining the twisted fantasy at its heart.
While Elle will surely divide opinions, it would be hard to argue against her incredible ability to convey humanity in all its darkest places.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords
A version of this review originally ran during MIFF. The star rating has been adjusted upwards by one half.