Film Review – Elle (2016)

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Isabelle Huppert is utterly electrifying in Paul Verhoeven’s alluring rape-revenge thriller based on source material by Philippe Dijan.

Elle is a film that aims to shock and challenge its audience; this is made crystal clear in its opening scene where as the credits still roll, we hear screams from Huppert’s Michele as she is brutally raped by a home invader in a ski mask. We learn a tremendous amount of our protagonist within this difficult-to-watch opening: despite her trauma, she has a bath, books herself into a clinic to get checked out and prepares for bed with a weapon under her pillow. Most importantly, Michele does not panic, she is calm and composed in everything she does and she does not go to the police (for reasons we later discover).

Michele is a successful, wealthy businesswoman, running a video game manufacturer in Paris, a woman trying to escape her past, namely her father, who was a brutal serial killer, now safely locked away in prison. The shadow of Michele’s past still looms ominously over her life however as she is spat at and verbally abused on the streets. Michele’s difficult past is perhaps also relevant in her relationships with men; she is a promiscuous woman, seeing sex as purely a meaningless tool of enjoyment (Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ sprung to mind).

As the film progresses, and Michele attempts to track down her rapist, she transforms into the ultimate femme fatale, one as devious and morally challenged as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity or Lauren Bacall’s Vivian in The Big Sleep. Elle is certainly a genre-hopping film; it has elements of Film Noir with its central femme fatale. Its home-invasion sequences play out like a suburban horror film and are reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Strangely however, it also has vast amounts of comedic aspects (including a black baby being born into a white couple), in fact, for large parts the film seems to even forget about the rape that is driving the narrative. This is not a bad thing, I feel this film would perhaps be slightly too difficult to watch if it carried its dark undertones at the forefront throughout.

At the heart of this film though is a completely mesmerising performance from Isabelle Huppert (she picked up the Best Actress Cesar, an accolade she was never going to win at the Oscars because this is a foreign language film, a fact that is so bitterly disappointing because she so strongly deserved it). Huppert fits so perfectly into her role, you could not imagine anyone else pulling it off. Although she walks the moral tight rope throughout, you never question her motives, always route for her as Verhoeven’s camera focuses wholly on her in every scene.

It’s strange that Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s comeback film would be a rape-revenge thriller set in suburban Paris and filmed in French, a director who is renowned within the American sci-fi genre – Total Recall, Robocop, Starship Troopers. This is so far away from his previous work, so different to anything he has previously done, proving the sheer versatility of the director. He does a terrific job, never being too flashy or too showy, always focusing on Huppert’s Michele, knowing full well that she is the star of this show.

Elle is extremely challenging in its moral ambiguity and in its fine line between rape and BDSM, it is a sexually focused thriller that is unconventional in its very nature, don’t expect an Americanized remake anytime soon, Hollywood this ain’t.

[rating=4] | Josh Hall

Drama, Thriller | France/Netherlands, 2016 | 18 | 10th March 2017 (UK) | Picturehouse Entertainment | Dir.Paul Verhoeven | Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny,