Movie Review: Elle
R | 2h 10min
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
by Jason Koenigsberg
Elle is one of the most excruciating and perverse movies of 2016. It is intended to outrage viewers but one should expect nothing less from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Black Book) who welcomes controversy and never shies away from an opportunity to illicit shock and awe from his art. However his directional prowess in Elle is equalled by French actress Isabelle Huppert who gives one of the most fearless and intense performances of recent memory. 2016 was a year mostly filled with passable and safe movies from Hollywood, thank God for Paul Verhoeven still being able to push buttons and deliver something memorable that even if people do not like it, will have strong emotional responses to it and are likely not going to forget. Elle is a kinky, twisted, comedy with characters who have sadistic sexual desires. At times it is meant to challenge the audiences sensibilities for taste.
The opening shot is of a black cat as we hear a sexual assault taking place. The opening scene is done in a very matter-of-fact manner with no sense of urgency or eroticism in the aftermath of rape. We meet Michele LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) who avoids calling the police and is reluctant to tell her son or her friends about the break in and assault. She is a successful businesswoman with a background in literature working as a video game developer that designs very violent and sexual games. We also learn very early on that she has enemies but the reason why is not revealed until much later in the film.
The screenplay is more complex from Paul Verhoeven’s American films and takes time to unravel. It is laced with very dark humor throughout and not typical dark humor, but the audience may find themselves laughing about topics and situations that they would have never found to be humorous in any other context. It is daring and never succumbs to cliches that other sexual thrillers or dysfunctional family dramas would. Literally, the audience never knows what will happen next because every character we meet harbors dark secrets. The humor is mostly based on awkward and bizarre relationships between the characters but never one to shy away from controversy, Paul Verhoeven displays a lot of dark, anti-religious, particularly anti-Catholic humor.
The greatest aspect of Elle is the lead performance by veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert. She creates a loathsome and despicable character, one of the most selfish protagonists you will ever see in a motion picture. This is no easy task and an extremely brave performance for the actress to put herself through such compromising scenes. At times Elle is a complex character study of a wealthy and successful woman dealing with rape. But then the script throws several curveballs and it turns into a study of a lascivious woman and her aberrant sexual desires. The curveballs the movie throws at us involve all the other people in Elle’s life, with obnoxious behavior by her mother, her son and his pregnant girlfriend, her coworkers, ex husband, neighbors, and a couple that are her and her exes best friends. Slowly the audience learns each of these characters are not what they appear to be on the surface. These are sad, lonely and desperate people each longing for love in their own slightly perverse way. Elle is a portrait of a dysfunctional family at Christmas which emphasizes how lonely and miserable the characters are surrounded by scenes where they should have everything they need to be content.
Elle is a lot of different things but by the end, it emerges as a powerful film about the scars we get from our parents growing up and how we sometimes pay for the sins of our fathers as children but also as adults. Huppert’s portrayal of an emotionally broken woman who carries a burden her parents inflicted on her from childhood that never goes away, is one of the bravest and most complex performances from 2016.