[DISCLAIMER: rape is one of the most horrible and vicious things that can be done, and it is a relevant and delicate subject matter. I do not condone it in any way, shape or form. In the following review and analysis, I will focus on rape in terms of how it is portrayed in media and in the news.]
Rape has always been present in cinema, portrayed in more or less explicit ways. There are a multitude of ways in which it has been tackled by different artists: in Irreversible, Gaspar Noé shows the brutal act in a 11-minute long take, with the rest of the movie focusing on how the lives of those who knew the victim react to the crime; in I Spit On Your Grave, rape is part of the exploitation subgenre of rape and revenge films, with the whole movie as an excuse to watch rapists get mutilated and assaulted in brutally gory fashion; in plenty of others, it is nothing more than a plot device. But no movie has ever tackled rape the way Elle does.
Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to unusual movies with a satirical edge (think of 1987’s Robocop’s portrayal of television, or 1990’s Total Recall appearance vs reality), but with Elle (his first movie in a decade, since 2006’s Black Book) he creates a character study that is bold in its execution and masterful in its direction.
The story focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), businesswoman, detached mother of a son (Jonas Bloquet) that she barely knows, and head of a video game company co-owned with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). One evening, she is assaulted and raped in her home by a masked assailant. For the rest of the movie, you follow all the relationships of the people that Michèle interacts with, while also playing a game of cat-and-mouse with her assailant.
When a female character in a movie is raped, there are usually two ways that the story goes: either she is someone to pity and protect, who the male characters feel entitled to save and avenge, or she becomes a maniacal angel of vengeance who cuts off a man’s genitals after having given him an handjob (true scene from 1978’s I Spit On Your Grave). But Verhoeven, screenwriter David Birke, and Isabelle Huppert herself manage to create a deeply complex, compelling, interesting, and (above all) human character.
Starting the movie cold with the rape scene is an incredibly smart move: you know nothing about Michèle, so you instantly sympathize with her situation (I hope no one ever hopes to get raped in their life). Right after this moment, she goes on with her day-to-day life, acting as if nothing happened: you respect her even more, for you can see she is a strong woman that does not crumble under adversity. But then, we start seeing her interacting with more and more people, and you find out that she is not a saint herself. For the rest of the movie, your thoughts about her are constantly shifting, one time liking her for telling someone off, and another hating her for how she treats her friends and family.
And here comes the genius of this movie: like most of my favorite motion pictures (e.g. Django Unchained, In Bruges, The Guest), there are a multitude of genres blended here, ranging from erotic thriller to family drama. Most importantly, the movie is a very dark comedy, so much so that I do not think I have laughed this hard for a very long time. The humor is expertly implemented, and it works both as a great stress reliever and as a way of making fun of our lives.
Another great feature of this movie is that, by creating flawed and very real characters, you get to understand the motivations of each one of them. Not everything that these characters do in this film is rational, and it is very hard to agree with their choices and reactions, but all of them are understandable. Verhoeven does not even rely on cliched melodramatic moments that he could have easily leaned to, instead forcing the audience to watch the grotesque actions that all of us do in our daily lives in order to safeguard ourselves. Michèle could have called the police to identify the rapist, sure, but (excluding the fact that she has had a bad relationship with them when she was very little) she is a woman that enjoys feeling in control, thus when she ultimately finds out who the real rapist was, the things that she does later are still very consistent with her character. Are they the right thing to do? That is highly debatable, but life is not a video game where there are right or wrong choices or the possibility to take your time with your answer and reload. Sometimes we act impulsively, irrationally, even contradicting ourselves and our beliefs. But this is what makes us human.
I strongly believe that Isabelle Huppert gave the best performance by a lead actress in 2016: she brings life to her character not through exaggerated accents or over-the-top acting, but with subtlety and boldness that are rarely seen in major productions. The “market” for over-50 actresses is scarce to say the least, with many of them either acting as MILFs in juvenile comedies or as that one bitchy old woman that everyone hates.
Huppert and the director challenge the industry to make more demanding movies, with unusual stories that hit closer than one might think. With excellent acting, a consistently intriguing story, bold execution and a great sense of humor, Elle is among the finest dark comedies/thriller/dramas that you are going to come across. Highly recommended to everyone.
Visual Effects: 8.5
Violence & Gore: 8.5
Sex & Nudity: 8.5
Drugs & Profanity: 6.5
Intensity & Horror: 7