Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Premise: A successful businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) is sexually assaulted in her home by a masked assailant. She suspects that the attacker might be someone she knows and she attempts to lure the assailant into the open.
What Works: Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is known for making provocative and subversive movies. In such diverse titles as Robocop, Basic Instinct, and Black Book, Verhoeven has consistently created movies that play against cinematic and cultural norms and question fundamental ideas about storytelling and moral values. But even for Verhoeven, Elle is a tough and challenging movie. This film operates within the rape-revenge thriller. This is a storytelling genre that has frequently been a source of derision by critics and moral watchdogs. And in some cases that contempt is deserved; in movies of earlier decades it was not uncommon for low budget action pictures to include sexual assault scenes for no other reason than working female nudity into a picture for crass commercial reasons. Elle is not that kind of movie but it isn’t a clean cut or polite motion picture either. This film opens with a sexual assault and instead of slipping into a cliché victim narrative, Elle subverts the rape revenge formula. Rather than being shattered by this event, the protagonist carries on with her life and goes right back to work as the chief executive of a video game company. She also carries on several affairs, which were in progress before her attack, and continues to be a sexual being. Elle does not imply that this woman’s assault had no impact on her but it does portray human relationships in a dark and cynical way that suggests that sexuality and violence are an inevitable part of social interactions. The movie is enigmatic in the way that it avoids the exploitative rape-revenge clichés but it also turns its back on the morays of polite society; Elle eludes most contemporary feminist ideologies and the fetishization of victimhood. The way this movie refuses to be boxed into a single idea or framework suits the central character. Elle is led by Isabelle Huppert and she provides a fierce and fascinating performance. With its opening attack scene, Elle sets up the character as an underdog and a figure of pity but Huppert goes about undermining those appeals. Her character is in many respects unlikable. She is occasionally rude and has affairs with married men. The film does not ask us to like or pity her. As played by Huppert, this woman is aggressive and even predatory; when she discovers the identity of her attacker she toys with him, even baiting him into another attack in ways that play on sexual power politics.
What Doesn’t: Like a lot of Paul Verhoeven’s movies, Elle is not going to appeal to everyone. Verhoeven is a filmmaker who pushes audiences outside of their comfort zones and there are some tough images in this movie, especially in the assault sequences. But part of the innovation of Elle is the way it subverts the conventions of the rape-revenge formula. Movies like this are intended to be cathartic by beginning with a terrible assault and ending with some form of justice, usually taking the form of vigilante violence as in I Spit on Your Grave or the legal recourse of a movie like The Accused. Elle toys with those resolutions but it does not see them through and so the movie is not satisfying in the way that audiences are accustomed to. The frustration of the viewer’s expectations is part of the point of the movie but it means that our enjoyment may be frustrated as well. At two hours and ten minutes, Elle is a long movie and perhaps a little too long in places with the film providing several red herrings before it finally reveals the identity of the culprit.
DVD extras: Featurette, interviews, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Elle is a fascinating movie that deliberately breaks the rules and expectations that we have about storytelling and human behavior. It’s a robustly subversive film with a smart script and a terrific lead performance by Isabelle Huppert.
Episode: #639 (March 19, 2017)