Common human decency suggests that you shouldn’t kick someone when they’re down. Elle takes place in an alternate reality where the opposite is true. Meek and injured people exist to be manipulated, swatted around and ultimately devoured. Yet director Paul Verhoeven manages to uncover complicated layers to the carnivore’s delight, some strange experiential purgatory in between guilt and glee. One might describe these as interstitial emotions, feelings caught between a rock and hard place.
Video game designer Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) finds herself playing the role of both predator and prey after being raped by a masked man in her kitchen. As opening credits play over black, classical music quickly segue to horrific sounds of her violent assault. Instead of calling the police or going to the hospital, she calmly cleans up broken dishes and jumps in the bath. Submerged comfortably, Michèle admires the growing red stain that taints a perfectly white blanket of soapy bubbles.
Michèle doesn’t deny the gravity of her traumatic experience, but it becomes apparent that she wants to dictate the terms of her recovery and revenge. True to form, it will be the last time anyone really surprises her. Initially, Elle unfolds like a feminist retribution fantasy with the victim being tormented by her aggressor through nasty messages and threats. But Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (adapting from Philippe Dijan’s source novel) subvert our expectations by tweaking the psychological dynamics at play.
Accused of living a “sanitized life” by her sexually promiscuous mother (Judith Magre), Michèle actually harbors an ocean of hidden desires that resurface post-assault. Many can be traced back to the night five decades before when her religiously devout father went on a killing spree in their neighborhood. Fittingly, Verhoeven often calls attention to the idea of “imprinting,” or the organic effect experiences have on the brain. At one point, Michèle explains that she feels disconnected from her deadbeat son Vincent (Joans Bloquet) because he was breastfed by another woman as a newborn.
Other strange couplings and power struggles emerge, mudding the core thriller narrative and turning Elle into a chamber piece of spite. Michèle becomes strangely attracted to her next-door neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), whose religious wife seems clueless to their flirtations. Vincent has shacked up with a verbally abusive pregnant woman who’s manipulated him into thinking he’s the father. These delusions of grandeur are never played for laughs, but contain darkly comic and absurd undertones.
At the center of it all is Huppert, who gives Michèle a quiet Machiavellian ferocity that is expressed through small facial expressions and gestures. Part chameleon, she often uses perceived feminine weaknesses to strike back at unthinking, control-hungry men. These skills are on full display during an awkward Christmas party where she must navigate the passive (and not so passive) aggression from multiple sides. Some brains can handle the stress, and others can’t, as the celebration ends abruptly with one character collapsing of stroke.
Elle, which opens Friday, Nov. 11, daringly looks at one woman’s rigorous clandestine war on societal contradictions. Michèle can’t fathom living in a world where rigid morality and repression aren’t challenged faithfully. During one brazen conversation with friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny) she says, “Shame is not a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing things.” What an amazing dare and a perfect thesis statement for Verhoeven, an enigmatic director who continues to push the boundaries of genre salaciousness.
Michèle’s grey house cat ends up being her vindictive spirit animal. The feline casually witnesses violence unfold and later pounces on a wounded sparrow that’s just crashed into the kitchen window. There’s no room for mercy when it comes to the carnal realities of instinctual pleasure. One of the most rigorous and daring movies of the year, Elle provides a cinematic space for “nasty” women to be themselves.