“Elle” opens with the muffled sounds of a woman being sexually assaulted by a masked attacker. The only witness is a gray cat, purring as the victim screams. The assault takes place off camera, but the aftermath is chilling, as the woman sweeps up shattered glass, wipes blood from her thigh, throws her soiled dress in the trash, soaks in a bubble bath and orders sushi. It’s business as usual for Michele LeBlanc (an Oscar-worthy Isabelle Huppert), but not so much for the rest of us. Before the credits roll, director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) takes us on one rough and rape-y ride through the dark side of human nature, exploring the intense emotions of shame, lust and rage.
As he documents Michele’s life, Verhoeven adeptly turns the tables on classic portrayals of victimization and revenge. “Elle” is a combination of black comedy and psycho-sexual revenge thriller, as Michele tries to figure out who was behind the mask. The result is agitating in any language.
Michele is the cultured and well-off CEO of a company that profits off misogynistic video games portraying violence against women. Huppert is an inspired casting choice. At age 63, she is a mature beauty, exuding more sexuality, confidence and self-awareness than starlets half her age.
Divorced with an adult son, Michele lives alone in a beautiful Paris abode, protected by a cast iron gate — a metaphor for the protective Teflon shield Michele wraps herself in. This rape isn’t the first time Michele has had to soldier forth. That’s why she reacts so unpredictably afterward. There are no frantic calls to police (a childhood trauma turned her off to cops). She sheds no tears. Later, at a restaurant with friends, she casually tells them: “I suppose I was raped. What are the dinner specials?”
“Elle” is a complicated movie that takes a while to process. Some might recoil at the film’s cavalier tone. Verhoeven — working from a script by David Birke, based on the novel “Oh…” by Phillippe Djian — certainly gives critics plenty to grumble about in how his film perpetuates rape culture, beats up on its leading lady (her head gets bashed against walls a lot) and surrounds Michele with depraved men.
She’s involved with a married man, an affair she tries to end. Her slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) calls her the c-word. Her male employees are either in a state of infatuation or loathing. One even creates a meme that shows Michele being assaulted by a tentacled-monster. The imagery is disturbing and amplifies the rape unnecessarily. And there’s more than one encounter with the rapist, who continues to attack Michele emotionally, sending explicit texts and leaving ejaculate on her bed. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is a bit of a dolt. Thick sexual tension brews with the handsome neighbor (Laurent Lafitte). On top of it all, Michele’s incarcerated father has deeply scarred her for life. The women in Michele’s life aren’t much better. Her future daughter-in-law (Alice Isaaz) is, as Michele says, “vile;” and her eccentric mother (Judith Magre) pays younger men for sex. Her oasis seems to be her best friend/business partner (Anne Consigny), but there’s even baggage with that relationship.
Verhoeven, who also directed “Showgirls,” “Total Recall” and “Robocop,” builds quite a rogue’s gallery. When he brings them all together for a Christmas dinner party at Michele’s home, it makes for one glorious gathering. The dysfunction is on overdrive and the movie feels like a comedy of manners. But when Michele plays footsie under the table with the hot neighbor and satisfies herself watching him through binoculars — as he sets up a nativity scene — you know you were never in Kansas.
As the end draws near, Verhoeven puts Michele’s masochistic ways front and center. There are some twists and revelations that don’t exactly ring true. It’s refreshing to have a full-blown female antihero to root for. It’s just troubling that the filmmaker uses the rape to put the movie in motion. After that harrowing opening, you definitely think Michele is a victim in denial. But the way she goes about her life, and Huppert’s ability to sell the aloofness, make you think otherwise. Maybe it was a rape fantasy? Given the other sexual actions Michele takes in the film, it’s possible that maybe she liked it. That’s what Verhoeven hints at and that’s uncomfortable. But this is a director who has never been afraid to stir the pot in exploring female sexual empowerment (or is it depravity?). Do you recall that infamous Sharon Stone interrogation scene?
Despite all that occurs, Michele grapples with some degree of shame. As she puts it, “Shame is not a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing something.” That line is the heart of the story. And it takes a lot of unsettling actions and disturbing imagery to get to that dark place. But if you can stomach it and like your movies to fire you up, then don’t miss “Elle.”
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virgine Aefira, Judioth Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz and Vimala Pons.
(R, for violence including sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity and language.)