Elle directed by Paul Verhoeven
For those that find cliché an imposition on their patience, Elle directed by Paul Verhoeven is two-edged. Yes, the film seems to find some conventions of the thriller indispensable, like the loud, sudden noise that turns out to mean nothing. And is it a spoiler to say that a character shouldn’t go down into the basement? But the film is so ingenious otherwise, so original in its plot contortions and so fuck you I’ll show you anything I want in its bravery, that ‘must see’ rings out at you from the screen.
The film stars Isabelle Huppert, and if that doesn’t make you want to see it, then we are in different film camps. Her career is a beacon of French cinema. Huppert has escaped the trash machine of Hollywood marketing and is better off as an artist for it. Elle is one of those newly-minted European classics that Hollywood will long to remake in a more tepid version.
The movie opens savagely with Huppert, as an upper class, 40’s-something woman, being raped in the kitchen of her luxury townhouse in Paris. After the attack, her character, Michèle Leblanc, chills you by not calling the police. She cleans herself up and gets back on her schedule.
Why doesn’t she call the police? She was traumatized by them as a child, and by her father. Her father went on a murderous rampage in their neighborhood when she was a kid. Now a senior, he’s serving out the last of his sentence for multiple murders. Michèle and her gorgon of a mother, played to perfection by Judith Magre, are still threatened in public by people who remember the crime committed by Michèle’s father. His parole hearing is coming up, and in a fast food restaurant, someone dumps their lunch tray into Michèle’s lap in contempt when she recognizes the daughter of the murderer. So imagine the weirdness when no matter what the threat, you feel you can’t go to the police but have to handle it yourself. It’s as if you live in a community that has no police.
Michèle is a partner in a successful video game company. She knows her demographic and presses her young game designers to make the roleplaying in a new game as sadistic as possible. Beta excerpts from the game, shown in full screen in the movie, are horrific. But the more repulsive the game appears in its exploitation of women, the more the game design team cheers. As I said, Michèle knows her demographic.
There’s one of those dinner parties from hell set pieces. At a Christmas Eve holiday dinner, Michèle’s mother, who appears to be in her 70’s, announces to the group that she and her date, who we know is her decades younger male hustler, are getting married. The dinner guests break into perfunctory applause as you would expect for the announcement of an engagement. At table, her daughter guffaws in her mother’s face. Then when a religious guest wants to watch the Pope’s midnight mass, most of the company clears the room.
There’s been some dumbed-down plot summary stuff in the media about how in this film a rape victim goes after their perpetrator. But saying that is as crude as trying to mount a butterfly with a sledgehammer. Verhoeven has crafted a subtle ice-white thriller whose sharp edges will risk cutting your throat. Who is the predator and who the victim? The answer seems to shift with each scene.
Essential noir. Not since Hitchcock’s Vertigo have I found it so stimulating to get lost in a thriller. Watch Huppert’s body language. And Huppert’s facial expressions are so nuanced that you can read the film on her face.