Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) has suffered the worst thing that can happen to a woman short of murder, she has been beaten up and raped in her own home, in this case by a masked assailant who left her dazed on the floor of her living room. But she does not act as if she has been assaulted, she behaves as if she has been shocked into bizarre behaviour that does not involve calling the police to set them after the criminal, she merely cleans up after him and has a bath and a glass of wine to relax herself. The main reason for not getting the cops involved is that she has had dealings with them before, and was far from impressed: when she was a girl her father committed a mass murder and it seemed to them and the media that she had a hand in it...
Quite one of the most confounding films ever to be nominated for major awards, Elle drew scathing criticism for its depiction of a rape victim, not helping that its director was Paul Verhoeven, who was not known for his sensitivity when it came to depicting scenes of violence. Yet something about the performance of Huppert, one of the most individual film stars around, made many of those who would be down on this project reassess their opinions, as she seemed to be the driving force behind what would have been a risky project for almost any other leading lady, to say the least, and turn that into a positive move: Michele refuses to be defined by her rape, since that would offer her attacker a power she is not willing to relinquish.
You would accurately observe that this was a state of affairs that would probably only happen in the movies, and therefore seek to discern some symbolism in the central crime - crimes, in fact, because Michele is later stalked by the rapist with a view to reoffending - yet there was so much on the film's plate that it became difficult to take it all in at one go. What was clear was the protagonist was taking charge, and in that way it was instructive to compare Huppert here with Huppert in another 2016 film of hers, Things to Come, where she played a character who gradually realises she is growing obsolete thanks to her age, gender and place in society. Michele, on the other hand, was not about to go quietly.
For that reason Elle was in a curious way a comedy, if only down to its heroine's habit of stubbornly going against the grain. But what might have succeeded on the page (it was adapted from the novel Oh... by Philippe Dijan, which Huppert had read and admired before she was offered this role) came across as a mess on the screen, not an unenjoyable one if you were prepared for it in the manner of Verhoeven's earlier, Dutch dramas like Turkish Delight or Spetters, but one that sprawled in ungainly style throughout its over two hours of running time. To get a handle on it as it veered from thriller plotting to black comedy to family drama to workplace soap and more, you had to continually remind yourself it was Michele's story and that was a story of sustaining herself on her own terms and not allowing anyone else to take away her sense of self.
It may sound appalling to say it in light of what kicked off the narrative, but there was a playful quality here that served to render it even more difficult to get on with; more accurately, Michele's trickster persona messed with the heads of every character in this, and did the same with more than a few audience members as well. She has to deal with her job as the head of a software company whose violent games are lagging behind their release dates, her mother (Judith Magre) who is dating far younger men who are only after her money (and she loves to make them do what she wants because of it), her best friend (Anne Consigny) whose husband Michele is having an affair with, her neighbour across the way (Laurent Lafitte) who she is developing an unhealthy obsession with, her son, whose girlfriend had just given birth to a mixed race baby despite both he and she being white, and so on incident piling on incident in an apparent move to bombard the viewer with too much information. The effect of this was to frustrate the film itself in its championing of unconventional survival, yet while there was simply too much of it, Huppert was compelling enough to justify mulling it over, no matter how disturbed you may be. Music by Anne Dudley.
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.