It’s hard to imagine a movie being more divisive than ELLE, which opens in the midst of the brutal home-invasion and rape of Isabella Huppert as the titular character, follows her as she matter-of-factly demands that her friends, family and coworkers not feel bad for her and goes on to present an unraveling story of amoral complexity that sometimes seems to be demanding the same from the audience. It’s an icy movie that doesn’t feel like it wants to be liked about an icier person who actively works to be disliked, even (or, perhaps, especially) once she finds herself enduring a violation that can’t help but earn sympathy.
Some Spoilers Follow:
Thematically, it’s covering much of the same ground as director Paul Verhoeven’s other movies, which tend to have the same overriding theme: “The world is complicated because most humans are pretty terrible people.” Usually he’s working in the format of genre film, so that level of bemused nihilism comes off either as parody or commentary: ROBOCOP mocks the corporatism of 80s action cinema, BASIC INSTINCT strips Hitchockian thrillers of their subtle niceties and (literally) rubs the audiences face in the implicit sexuality, FLESH + BLOOD is a medieval “romance” slathered in the blood and muck of medieval reality, STARSHIP TROOPERS tricks audiences into cheering for fresh-faced fascism and laughs at them from the sidelines. But there’s no genre being subverted in ELLE – this is Verhoeven without a filter, and what’s being held up for mockery is, seemingly, 21st Century humanity itself: Rapists, enablers, corporate cutthroats, smug suburbanites, adulterers and idiots – there doesn’t seem to be a decent person in the cast, and maybe that’s the point.
The other, more clear point is violently resisting any attempt to frame its characters as stand-ins for anything other than themselves. Elle (or, rather, Michelle) is someone who seems to spend every waking moment working to avoid any sort of broader human connection – whether to her family, friends, coworkers, her gender or even other rape survivors. It’s tempting to imagine her as an exaggerated-for-subversion avatar for the corporate “post-feminist” ideal; a woman so committed to absorbing the violence of patriarchy and redirecting it into power of her own (it’s no coincidence that she reigns with an iron fist over a video game studio staffed mainly by aggressive young bro’grammers in mid-development on a violent, sexed-up GOD OF WAR clone) that she’ll even try to forcibly twist her own rape into something that can somehow be made to “work for her.”
When her employees show off a sequence where the gremlin-like “hero” sexually-assaults a female character, her criticism (mere days removed from her own attack) is that the sequence isn’t brutal or erotically charged enough. When she suspects one employee of potentially being the (masked) rapist who attacked (and continues to stalk and harass) her, she sexually humiliates him but makes a point not to fire him. Rather than go to the police (even when her stalker is breaking into her home and leaving DNA everywhere), she refuses to report, stocks up on weapons and starts playing mind games with another potential suspect. When we find out she’s carrying on a no-strings affair with her best friend’s husband, it’s easily the most “ordinary” thing about her. By the time the “full story” comes into focus (she’s the daughter of a famous mass-murderer*, and much of France still suspects that she, as a child, was in some way an accomplice to his crimes) it’s almost beside the point: Sure, fine, what else would create this psyche?
It’s a nasty way to tell a nasty story, and though the usual flourishes of black humor or stylistic indulgence that often work (along with genre subversion) to help Verhoeven’s bitter medicine go down easier are largely absent (on the surface, it looks like a conventional upscale French character piece) the matter-of-fact professionalism can’t mask the director’s penchant for needling his audience’s sensibilities. Events seem to escalate in the “wrong” order: We’re horrified by what happens to Michelle and want to sympathize with her as a survivor, then we’re flabbergasted at how non-invested she is in her own violation but want to sympathize with her refusal to survive in a way that’s acceptable to others (you can feel her friends’ vague sense of resentment at being “denied” the ability to feel good about themselves by comforting her). Then, at last, the layers of her personal history and broader life peel back even further and we’re forced to confront the possibility that we’ve been projecting human expectations onto a character who may well be a literal sociopath.
This, along with what comes next (without spoiling any further, suffice it to say ELLE goes about as far and as dark as it could possibly go, at least thematically) turns the film into the kind of intellectual spectacle that would probably be called a “tour de force” if Verhoeven wasn’t being so uncharacteristically restrained on the visual side. This is a high-wire act: One step out of place, and the “big idea” of exploring how a uniquely disturbed person responds to their own assault could tumble over into feeling exploitative or even offensively vindictive: “Ha! Gotcha! You felt bad, but she’s just as sick as the rapist!” And while that wasn’t my takeaway from it, Verhoeven is so similarly matter-of-fact visceral about the assault itself and Michelle’s escalating attempts to confront it that it won’t surprise me at all to see planty come away thinking of ELLE as exactly that, a psycho-thriller freakshow co-opting rape-survival narratives for sensationalism – and the film (like Michelle herself) is so disinclined to justify itself that reading feels pretty tough to argue against.
For me, what it comes down to is that Huppert is simply too good in the film, and the character she and Verhoeven work in tandem to create is simply too richly detailed and magnificently rendered for a film that rises and falls on her shoulders to be dismissed as mere sensationalism. ELLE is no message movie, it doesn’t seem to want to “mean” or “say” anything about it’s title character beyond presenting her and her actions for examination; but Huppert (who has seldom been better than she is here) finds the real humanity in a character that a lesser actress might have only been able to render as a collection of lurid contradictions. By the time the film wraps up we may be no closer to understanding the totality of what drives Michelle or the decisions she makes, but her actions feel organic and authentic through the sheer force of will by which her actress keeps all her various facets contained within a singular performance. It’s likely that the film is too dark and the character not conventionally “likable” enough to register come Awards season, but few actors have so risen to such difficult material in 2016.
This is a tough movie, and it’s qualities (it feels vulgar to say “charms” or “positives” in this scenario) are largely so inscrutable it’s tough to “recommend” in any conventional sense. It’s trafficking in dark material, and seeing one of our best working actresses deliver what might be an all-time performance will not be enough to make enduring that darkness worthwhile for plenty of potential viewers (and not just ordinary multiplex audiences, either.) But for my part, I found ELLE profoundly disturbing but also fascinating and impossible to stop thinking about. Make of that what you will.
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*P.S. I’m aware of the increasingly popular theory that we’re meant to infer from Michelle’s glib recounting of her father’s murder spree (specifically, that she mentions details the press “never talks about” which it doesn’t seem like she would know either) that she was the actual murderer and her father tried to cover it up and then took the blame. It’s a fascinating take and makes a lot of sense, but until I hear either the writer, director or star confirm it I’m not sure I fully buy it. I think we’re absolutely supposed to infer that she was complicit enough to either have been an accomplice or not have needed to be “forced” to try covering it up, but it’s not 100% clear that her “unremarked details” (that pets were murdered along with whole families) are unreported versus not-as-often-mentioned. Interesting angle, none the less.