“Elle” is directed by Paul Verhoeven, and written by David Birke. It is based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Dijan. It stars Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, and Raphaël Lenglet.
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is the most audacious film I saw at NYFF this year. It is clear that the 78-year-old Dutch filmmaker has not lost his ability to push buttons or boundaries. His latest, an international co-production of France, Germany, and Belgium, deals with sexual violence with a great deal of frankness and intensity. What makes this so daring is that Elle just might be…a comedy? To be fair, it is not solely a comedy. The tags “drama” and “thriller” are also appropriate, but, from scene to scene, the prevailing tone is comedic. I know how that sounds. The very idea runs the risk of resulting in something in incredibly poor taste, which, however well intentioned, may end up saying something offensive. The fact that Verhoeven is as successful as he is at avoiding this, creating something that is even watchable at all, is something to be marveled at.
The plot concerns Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), the head of a video game production company, who is raped in the film’s opening moments. Throughout the story Michèle comes to grips with her trauma and her life, dealing with her mother, son, ex-husband, lover, and best friend, all of who are dealing with issues of their own. The screenplay gives all of these characters their due, without feeling busy.
Paul Verhoeven is an interesting choice for this material. He is best known in the United States for his science-fiction satires Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, as well as the notorious commercial and critical failure Showgirls. He has unfortunately gotten little work in the 21st century. I am only familiar with his Hollywood stuff, and I can say that it is all united by a certain audacity, an audacity that Elle has in spades.
Elle is a film that demands to be seen with an audience. You can feel the charge of discomfort in the air during certain scenes, as well as the patterns of tension and release occurring throughout the picture. It reminds me of a Todd Solondz film in that way, in that the diabolical filmmaker is more than willing to go right up to the edge of losing his audience, but always wins them back.
And yet, Elle is a film that I suspect will delight and win over audiences, and that is largely due to Isabelle Huppert. Her performance in this film is nothing short of heroic, and merits serious Oscar consideration. She is winning and hilarious throughout, and plays every note with charisma and vulnerability. This is a film where you can imagine no one else in the lead. She ensures that Michèle is never defined by her victimhood. Huppert is so intensely likable in the role that she will make, I suspect, the film watchable for those who would normally be turned off by its scenes of sexual violence
And these scenes are intense, to be sure. Each one is a punch in the gut. Verhoeven wisely never shies away from the brutality of the subject matter. But Elle also manages to be hysterically funny. It’s not a cynical film, or even a “black comedy” really. The whole thing is laced with humanity. Verhoeven and writer David Birke have a clear affection for these characters. Michèle’s relationships with her family and friends are well drawn and tender. Her son, Vincent (Bloquet) is a buffoon, the butt of many jokes, but Verhoeven never loses sight of his humanity. There is a sense of pathos to his character that is undeniable. This sense of humanity is extended even (in perhaps Elle’s most provocative move) to Michèle’s assailant, without ignoring the damage he does. It’s a fine, fine line to walk, and the fact that it even tries is impressive.
Indeed, in its fundamental kindness and humanism, Elle is reminiscent of my beloved Neighbors 2 (which I’m starting to suspect is one of the year’s great triumphs). There is a scene toward the film’s midpoint, depicting a Christmas party, where all of the major characters are brought together for the first time, and it is a joy. It is so on point comedically and dramatically, and it is the moment where I knew that Elle was something special.
Elle demands to be reckoned with, and will likely throw you at some point in its runtime. For me, a story choice in the third act took me by surprise, and I’m still trying to decide just how I feel about it. Up to that point I felt that Verhoeven and Birke had handled things perfectly, keeping everything in balance. For a while though, it lost me.
That being said, Elle is a must see, as I honestly have never seen anything quite like it. It is challenging, and full of life. It does me good to see Verhoeven come out with something so unique and striking at this stage in his career.