Paul Verhoeven’s Elle – his first theatrical release in over a decade – shows that even after a prolonged absence, the Dutch provocateur hasn’t lost even an ounce of his bite. This distinctly unsettling glance into forbidden fantasy provides a glorious exploration of our psyche’s darkest recesses, exceptionally carried by Isabelle Huppert; unquestionably the finest screen actress at work today.
As you’ve likely heard, the film tackles particularly confrontational subject matter: sexual assault. Had Elle been made in the United States, which was originally the plan, it would have almost certainly been undercooked and limp, but Verhoeven’s decision to shoot in Paris – home of the Philippe Djian source material of which it’s based – has delivered arguably the richest, most ambidextrous entry in his filmography. Michèle (Huppert), a strong-willed executive of a video game manufacturer, is raped at home in the very first scene following the introductory credits. However, once the attack concludes, it is almost instantly forgotten. She dusts herself off, sweeps up some broken china and debris, before pampering herself and setting out for a meal at a sophisticated eatery with friends.
In a more stereotypical narrative, the attack would define her characterisation, and the processes she adopts in the wake of it. She’d spend the runtime attempting to identify her assailant and execute a practiced revenge strategy. However Michèle is no stereotypical protagonist, and Elle is no stereotypical thriller. For starters, Verhoeven’s film is more akin to black comedy, locating the most corrosive of dark laughs, and the most scathing social commentary. Michèle’s day-to-day existence continues as normal post-trauma – she remains complicit in an affair with a married man, and deals with the mundanities of business management; dashes to meetings, dealing with nagging fixes around the office, pushing staff to ensure deadlines are met.
Now this erupting from the same creative vault as Basic Instinct and Showgirls means there are a handful of titillating flurries. A dinner party hostess plays footsie with another women’s husband, and an onlooker pleasures herself as she peers in at her neighbours’ Christmas festivities; ever the voyeurs Verhoeven and his subjects are. However Elle‘s rhythmic approach to tonal shades and form ensures the entirety of its 130 minute runtime feels entirely provocative, without having to exploit or degrade. It is the type of narrative, and framework of filmmaking that only Verhoeven would have the recklessness, but ultimately skill to craft, and the results are endlessly fascinating. Huppert too, whose back catalogue offers many moot points, such as Haneke’s masterful The Piano Teacher, or the incestuous developments of Ma Mère, is extremely competent and welcoming in taboo material; entrusting her director to provide the deepest portrayal of his or her story.
What makes her Michèle so intoxicatingly watchable is the meticulousness of her design formed in screenwriter David Birke’s watertight dialogue, and Huppert’s ferociously captivating portrayal. Despite her steely strength and seeming resilience against her sexual encounter, the dexterity of performance provides a keen reminder that everything in her bourgeois existence could alter within a single breath. One minute Huppert is scornful and acidic; spitting bile and volatile gallows humour, yet the very next, tightly coiled and vulnerable; posture and stance doing the talking as quivering lips are bitten shut in terror. The contrasting collection of emotions, and the manner in which they are exercised across all spheres of Michèle’s characterisation is a marvel, and it was rightful that the Academy nominated Huppert for Best Leading Actress at last month’s Oscars. She wholeheartedly deserved the win, too.
With its robust duration, Verhoeven has plentiful opportunities to expose his visual flair, and understanding of cinematic space, of which he is consistently impressive. Elle operates within its Parisian landscape beautifully, enabling the French capital to feel as characterised as those who bustle through its streets and sites. His camera dances through apartment buildings, office blocks, neon-shrouded bars and events, all whilst channelling the perspective of Michèle’s environmental interaction. An intrusive, almost luring lens ensures that post-rape, her home is captured as an unsafe space. It isn’t just her who has been violated by the masked attacker; the security of sanctuary has also been tainted. In addition to the excellent camerawork, Birke’s fizzing screenplay exercises the bandwidths of juxtaposed genres, as we crash from brittle satire, to wincing horror, and even take a sharp right at the romantic comedy; poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of such cinematic tropes.
It is very easy to isolate Elle, focussing only on its sexual violence subtext, but to do this is to devalue a remarkably intelligent, brazenly assured character piece. Verhoeven’s film has a sophisticated approach to the many shades of the human condition, and its longing for desire and control, taking audiences to the finest skirts of our psychology, and delivers an unforgettable ride in the process. Come for Huppert’s startling performance; stay for the fabulously rich experience.
Elle opens in cinemas across the UK from today (10th March).