Review by Mike Fishman
Elle, directed with dark flair by Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall), is unsettling in more ways than one might expect. Most viewers going in will already know that the film opens with a rape. In the opening scene Isbabelle Huppert’s Michele, a Parisian woman heading a video game company, is being attacked by a masked intruder and the brutality of the rape, conveyed more by sound than visuals, announces a film that will ask much of its audience. And indeed, as the film unfolds and we witness Michele (played note-perfect by the seasoned Huppert) interacting with her son who curses her, her ex-husband whom she alternately turns to for emotional support and casually takes a crowbar to his parked car, and the next-door neighbor with whom Michele instigates a game of footsy at a dinner while he is seated next to his prim wife, a moral ambiguity emerges that leads us to question her character in ways that are downright provocative.
Verhoeven, whose oeuvre includes Basic Instinct with Sharon Stone’s infamously uncrossed legs, has previously presented characters and situations that are not what they seem to be (or at least not what we expect them to be), but in Elle he wades deep into the territory of uncomfortable humor more associated with filmmakers such as Todd Solondz, who in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse, dare us to laugh at things we dare not, as did Jody Hill in the twisted mall-cop comedy Observe and Report. Though Michele appears to be haunted by the attack (which we return to in flashbacks that give deeper glimpses into the event), she urges her video game developing team to make the game they are working on more violently sexual and at a late point in the film after she has identified her attacker, turns the tables on him emotionally, urging him to hurt her. This has the absurd effect of making him recoil and proclaim that that’s not how this is supposed to work.
Michele’s moral ambiguity, though, is evident early on in the film. Moments after she is attacked and taking a restorative bubble bath, a disturbing red blood stain surfaces through the bubbles, which she seems more fascinated by than repulsed. Later, during one of the flashbacks, she admonishes her cat (who naturally just sat by and watched as any cat would), that the cat could have at least scratched him. Such humor pervades the film, reaching its darkest point when Michele, having crashed in her car, phones her rapist to rescue her, unable to get anyone else on the phone. There’s something remarkable about a scene in which a man, who has been recognized by his victim as her attacker, is helping to extricate her from her crashed car even as we see a bandage on his hand from where she stabbed him during their latest violent encounter.
Why wouldn’t she just call the police? A secondary plot details the troubled history of her childhood, when her father went on a rampage and murdered a number of their neighbors, including women and children, then set fire to his own house, a news clips from the time showing a disheveled young Michele in the wreckage of her home. Although Michele appears to be an innocent caught in her father’s guilt, the question of whether she participated in the house fire remains and, in any case, she is occasionally treated as a criminal by strangers who recognize her simply by virtue of being the daughter of the murderous monster. When Michele, who has not seen her father since he was sent to prison, finally decides to face him, she arrives at the prison only to be told her father died the night before by hanging himself. The man could no more face his daughter willingly than she could him. The film would feel grim if it were not for the dark humor, and could easily have felt forced in lesser hands, Huppert managing a tight wire act of a wronged woman deserving of sympathy yet deflecting pity with her character’s ruthless determination and uncertain ethics.