Michelle is a model power woman. She’s a CEO of a game production company, doesn’t take crap from anybody, and is as bossy as can be. She’s also a woman with a complicated life – but she hardly ever despairs over it, unleashing her dark self-depreciation every time when something new happens. As she pursues a psychopathic rapist who’s obsessed with her, we get to know that she’s also a daughter of a murderer whose crime kept France’s eyes on the street they lived on in the 1970s.
Elle is a mixture of genres that leaves the audience on a rollercoaster. From the opening, a brutal rape scene, all the way throughout the end, it turns bipolar on the cinemagoer. We’ve got dark thriller scenes switching to drama, then a plunge into dark humour. Simple enough to make you feel uneasy by keeping away from the handrails of the genres, it will totally give you a guilty pleasure at laughing at bizarre and inappropriate moments. But it will also creep you out in its darkest scenes.
Paul Verhoeven shows mastery in hinting the possible solutions at the audience to turn tables in the most unexpected moments… and then make the characters do a backflip over the said turn again. The story is complicated and detailed, but doesn’t overwhelm with a multitude of characters – it introduces us to their world.
Isabelle Huppert creates a character that often behaves in the most illogical manner ever – but that’s why she draws us in strongly. She doesn’t report her rapist to the police, she gets on with life and throws the remark over the table during a dinner to her astounded friends. Instead, she pursues a personal vendetta: she soon gets the feeling that her offender knows her, and does everything to make herself feel safe. She’s assured that she can handle the situation by herself. She gets a pepper spray and an axe and asks a co-worker to teach her how to use a gun, despite the threats that keep on coming her way.
And she has a lot of her plate: she’s a co-owner of a thriving business. Her son, who’s broke and has much smaller aspirations than her own, is about to get married, and she despises his bossy girlfriend with a passion. Her mother wants to marry a much younger guy. Her ex gets together with a younger girl, too, and she can’t hide the regret – except that she’s left him for a right reason. Michelle is caught up in this world, making choices that feel wrong, then trying to get things on the right track again.
What is prominent in this film is the analysis of the human nature without pointing to protagonists and antagonists. And it only starts with Michelle’s father: although she despises him and calls him “a monster”, her mother defends him strongly. And a similar account of another key character is given to us in the second half of the film, with the judgement on her son to follow. But our leading lady is a complex character that crafts that message from the very beginning. There’s no single “good” or “bad” here, there’s no victims and offenders – there are just humans with their complicated moralities twisted into a dark satire.
Another striking theme in Elle is the main character’s response to violence that is skilfully reawakened by flashbacks and the scenes from the game she is producing. She’s accused of participating in her father’s deed, and even makes a frightening confession at some point; she gets over an assault and trying to push it out of her mind – calling for a more violent representation of abuse in her video game hours after. It’s disturbing and keeps us striving to understand our heroine.
With its wicked but seductive charm, Elle takes us into the world of a social circle of characters that are far from perfection. With its twisted morality and a champion performance from the leading lady, it brings you to another dimension – a distorted reality that changes moods in a matter of seconds.
Elle opens UK-wide on the 10th of March.