Director: Paul Verhoeven
Runtime: 131 minutes
It's not every day you see a movie that opens with rape and then, mere minutes later, prods you to laugh uncomfortably. Assault and rape are tricky to tackle in a visual medium, given the thin line that separates honest discomfort and repugnant exploitation (look no further than high end cable dramas like Game of Thrones and Outlander). Leave it to Paul Verhoeven, then, to craft a psychological thriller/black comedy like Elle that occupies the elusive intersection of melodramatic noir thrills and pop-psychology.
Which is not to say that this is the first time Verhoeven has waded into these waters. This is, after all, the same man who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls. It's been a decade since Verhoeven's last film (the Dutch drama Black Book), and above all else, he remains an effective provocateur. Yet in Elle, adapted from French novelist Philippe Djian's "....Oh," Verhoeven reveals that he's moved on from hollow shock value. His new film is a silky smooth, Hitchcockian exercise buoyed by a sharp script and a mesmerizing lead performance.
Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke provide a sufficiently intricate framework, but the real heavy lifting comes down to the actress who plays Michele, the story's protagonist. In the hands of French actress Isabelle Huppert, it all looks astonishingly effortless. That sort of acting prowess is necessary given the psychological hoops Michele jumps through over the course of the film's two hours. So many (too many) similar female characters have been confined to victimhood in the aftermath of a rape, and Michele is a wonderfully complex corrective. Rather than wilt, Michele does her best to go about her usual routine. So much so, that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the incident had phased her at all.
Verhoeven plays the long game with Elle, and though it can sometimes be a bit bewildering, the approach helps the film standout and surprise. The evolution of Michele's "relationship" with her masked assailant is given as much screen time as her affair with her friend's husband, her garish mother, and the various oddballs and jackasses at her video game company. The revelation of Michele's childhood trauma further throws a wrench into how everything fits together.
Elle has a lot of pieces in its puzzle, but Verhoeven and Birke keep the story flowing along smoothly. At times, certain scenes beg the question "ok, why are we here/where is this going?" Ultimately, the mundanity of some of the narrative works in the film's favor. In giving so much focus to the regular aspects of Michele's life, Elle is able to smoothly compartmentalize its story the way its protagonist does. The story presents dozens of opportunities for Birke's screenplay to take the mawkish, "oh why me?" route with Michele's journey, yet the writer sidesteps them all.
The biting sense of humor is an equally valuable component of Elle's success. Rather than cheapen the gravity of Michele's trauma, the stabs of comedy elevate the film into a richer, more nuanced exploration. The blend of tones reaches its apex in a fantastic dinner party scene, where humor and tragedy collide in subtly breathtaking ways. It's all a high wire act that would fall apart in the hands of a less daring performer.
Yet even those who know Huppert's work might be taken aback by the way the actress' fearlessness manifests in this performance. In films like Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Huppert demonstrated her prowess through fiercely contained bursts of emotion. Elle, though no less complex, doesn't boast the shame type of obvious expressiveness. But just when it seems like the actress might be coasting, she throws out some little jab of black humor or murky despair that brings the whole balancing act into focus.
The performance is so strong and so consistently intriguing that it would be easy to dismiss the behind the scenes contributions. First and foremost is Verhoeven's elegant direction, which toes the line between high end psychological drama and paperback thriller. The faded, fall-into-winter color palette works well by casting even the most innocent moments in a murky mood. Anne Dudley's melodramatic score is a standout as well, lending scenes the right touch of menace and mystery without becoming intrusive. Despite the heavy nods to cinematic styles of the past, Verhoeven's stamp on Elle ensures that it all manages to still come across as forward-thinking. Whatever your thoughts on the director's previous work, he at least deserves credit for finding new ways to tease and provoke.