Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is one wickedly perverse, end-of-the-world, ice-cold erotic whodunit. It’s not really a thriller as much as a fascinating character study of Isabelle Huppert‘s Michele, a 50something owner of a Parisian videogame company that creates violent rape fantasies, and how a series of assaults and shocks that befall her character are reflective of Michele’s pathology and that of the general drift of social mores these days.
So Elle is partly social criticism and partly a kind of sex comedy. Except you can’t really call it comedic or farcical. Well, you can but the humor is flavored with a chilly, amoral undertow that smothers the hah-hah. But it’s constantly amusing. And the film is sharp, direct and fat-free — the best or least problematic Verhoeven film since Basic Instinct or even Robocop. It runs 130 minutes but feels like 100, if that.
Elle is partly a kinky sex fantasia (i.e., get to know your rapist), partly a twisted tale of perverse karma stretching back decades, partly a portrait of social dysfunction and moral indifference, partly a Verhoeven-styled wicked game movie (he’s always been into kinky abandon of one kind of another), and partly a woman’s empowerment saga. I found it completely pleasurable despite the fact that the air conditioning wasn’t working in Scotiabank #2. It was awful in there.
David Birke‘s screenplay is adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel, but it really feels like Satan wrote it. Satan in a dry, whimsical, fuck-all mood.
It starts with Michele, a resident of a tony Paris suburb, being brutally raped by some guy whose face is covered by a black head mask. This being a Verhoeven film, Michelle is shocked and traumatized and perhaps a little bit turned on by the attack.
The film is more or less about Michele’s decision to find out who the assailant is on her own — no cops. Is it a total stranger, some boilerplate rapist? Or Kurt (Lucas Prisor), a somewhat disapproving guy who works at her videogame company? Is it her next-door neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a banker married to a pretty goody-two-shoes Catholic? Her sometime lover Robert (Christian Berkel), who’s marred to Michele’s best friend and business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny)?
Her 20something son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is not a suspect, but he’s a sucker and a weakling who’s in love with a ball-busting neurotic, Josie (Alice Isaac), who early on gives birth to a kid who clearly hasn’t been co-sired by Vincent. Also involved is Michele’s oddball mother (Judith Magre) who’s planning on marrying a much-younger guy, and her father, a surburban mass murderer who’s been serving a life sentence since the ’70s.
Huppert is fantastic as Michele. She’s been playing take-it-or-leave-it types, erotic obsessives and eccentrics (Michael Haneke‘s The Piano Teacher is a standout in this regard) for so long that her Elle outing feels like a variation on a theme. But she so owns this kind of thing.