Paul Verhoeven’s Elle opens with a blank screen and the sickening sounds of sexual assault. The first image of the film is of a cat, casually witnessing the rape. Only after this introduction does Verhoeven confront the audience with the actual struggle: a man clad in dark clothing and a ski mask, dominating an older woman and having his way with her. Once he is gone, we’re introduced to Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) wordlessly; she picks herself up, straightens her clothing, cleans up some broken glass, and then takes a bath. The blood floats up from between her legs to color the bubbles with a crimson wisp.
Elle is primarily concerned with characters and their reactions to bizarreness. Michèle is undoubtedly the focus, and the rest of the film explores her relationships, both personal and professional. Through all of these interactions, Michèle is self-assured and confident, and she positively refuses to accept victimhood. Despite her best efforts to continue on with her life, she is harassed by her assailant, kicking off a perverse, sexually-charged game of cat-and-mouse that has Michèle on a journey of self-discovery, not simple retribution. These elements conspire towards an irreverent tone that is sometimes dark and comic, and other times erotic, thrilling, and cruel. Elle is a fascinating piece concerned with ideas of media-fuelled judgment, the rebuke of victimhood through self-empowerment and humor, and the dark places that one can talk themselves into exploring – given the right incentive.
Elle is a character study through-and-through, and the character it is most concerned with is Michèle Leblanc. She works as the CEO of a video game company, producing a gruesome, violent, and sexual game. There is a frightening darkness in her past, which is hinted at by her interactions with random strangers. It is all revealed slowly, until Michèle recites everything at a Christmas party in such a matter-of-fact way that it is disarming. Above all else, Michèle is a complex character that defies easy description. This instills her with a kind of frenetic energy; as a spectator, you’re never quite sure of what she may do next. It’s refreshing and fascinating.
The relationships that Michèle surrounds herself with help establish the kind of person that she is. At work, she has a consistent vision about what she wants, and when a junior coder stands up to her in a meeting, she is quick to draw the line in the sand: this is her company, her game, her decision – so fall in line. There’s a power to her personality, which may magnify the severity of the rape in the eyes of the audience. She butts heads with her mother, who is a bit of a deviant and a constant annoyance. Her son is a brow-beaten bum, walked on by his live-in girlfriend and completely unappreciative of the financial assistance that Michèle gives them. Michèle’s writer ex-husband starts dating again, so she has to worm her way into that relationship, and she’s also got the hots for one of her neighbors. It’s a multitude of interaction, characterization, and meaning – and everything develops her character further.
The sum of all this is Michèle, mercilessly portrayed by Isabelle Huppert. As previously mentioned, she defies practical description, especially since I mean to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Hence, I will not reveal the identity of her rapist. I’ll also refrain from revealing the past trauma that so shapes Michèle’s life. Instead, I’ll focus on the particulars of Huppert’s performance, and how effortlessly she uses tiny moments to convey Michèle in beautiful little dashes.
We’re treated to the magnificence of Huppert’s performance from the onset of the film. There’s a nonchalance with how she handles the aftermath of her rape. The trailer for the film relished this dark comedy putting in on full display, front-and-center. Michèle reveals the assault to a group of friends at a dinner as they decide on wine, and they’re aghast. She dismisses their concerns gaily. It is at once absurd and empowering, a kind of funny that draws nervous laughter and quizzical respect for Michèle. She will continue along in this headspace throughout the film, exploring her own feelings about what happened to her, how she should respond, and what kind of person that makes her. It is altogether singular – no other film character is quite like Michèle.
With Michèle as the driving force of the film, the resulting tone is inevitable. There’s a charged, defiant sexuality in the film, a refutation of the very idea of becoming a victim. She takes each attempt from the assailant to terrorize her in stride, almost like a spider watching a wasp bobble ever-closer to the sticky web. There’s also a kind of awkwardness in the film, a cringe-worthy way that Michèle treats her family in front of others. Sometimes this generates great comedy, and sometimes it just feels sad. Elle sits at the nexus of all things kinds of moods; it is at once irreverent, vengeful, sexy, and furiously funny.
The film also hinges on the decisions placed before Michèle. Though the rough plot describes a tale of vengeance, there is much more delicacy to the ideas. There are deft considerations about family and forgiveness, sexual aggression and power, secrecy and betrayal, and a whole host of other ruminations on how experiences – and our responses to them – shape the people we become. Of course, Verhoeven can’t resist an opportunity to skewer some aspect of the media or popular culture, so there is a hefty dose of those ideas in Elle, as well. (Not to the extent we see in Robocop or Starship Troopers, but it is still a significant part of the story). Spectators will find much to take away from Elle, and should take many return trips to its brimming well.
The uniqueness of Michèle is the defining characteristic in Elle, the alpha and the omega of whether the story works or founders. I hope I have made clear that Isabelle Huppert’s performance is a dazzling superlative. Hence, though the plot travels to some dark places and can even be confusing at times, since we always come back to Michèle, everything is right in the end. This character is neoteric, a carnal expression of inviolable, feminine strength, insistent on finding her way through life, towards the person she wants to be.