Paul Verhoeven versus Isabelle Huppert, Starship Troopers v. Amour. If that’s a match-up you’ve been waiting for, you can put the wish list down and get the debit card out. Not that Elle has any intergalactic bugs in it but, it certainly does come with a hefty dose of Verhoeven’s unflinching elan and power. And a mission to make you deeply uneasy. Whether you view that ambition as desirable is one thing, whether that ambition is realised is beyond debate. As is any doubt that it comes with a tour de force and rightly Oscar-nominated lead performance from the doyenne of French cinema.
Elle concerns a video game creator, Michèle Leblanc, played by Huppert. Comfortably off, living a gloriously chic belle vie in Nantes, but with a dark, dark past and, increasingly, a dark present. A lot of shaded recesses in Elle, many of which we may prefer unexplored. Whilst some decades before, the now-incarcerated father has been on a rather impressive and gory murder spree, the present day for the daughter is haunted by sporadic house invasions and rape by a masked attacker. It’s vicious stuff and the movie is punctuated with sexual violence, verbal violence and straight up, smash your face in violence.
The gradual revealing of what lurks in the shadows is what drives this film. That and the occasional comedy of manners absurdity, improbably enough. The latter illustrated, for example, by serial killer dad sparing a hamster whilst murdering an entire street’s worth of people and their pets; go figure – maybe he just liked rodents. A sprinkling of uneasy laughs in Elle. And a lot of straight-up shocks, jumps and danger lying just out of reach; of the mind and the three-dimensional world.
It’s beautifully and calmly shot by Stéphane Fontaine, previously known for Rust And Bone amongst others, and the direction by Verhoven is superlative. Whilst his subject matter has sometimes been dubious – hi, Showgirls – there’s no getting away from the fact that he knows how to put a film together. True to form, it would be very easy to mount a critique that Elle is rampantly misogynistic. Perhaps it is? Perhaps that’s why video games provide a place of employment and an alternate universe for indignities visited upon the leading lady – witness the joys of Gamergate etc. It’s certainly easy to take issue with some of the scenes of viscerality and rape and exactly who is using who in each scene. Even typing that sentence looks concerning.
Therein lies the rub. That level of complicity by Huppert in the psychopathy and sins of the father is left deliberately opaque. In the sins (visited upon) the daughter, things become a whole lot more explicit. Exactly who is the victim in each scenario played out or alluded to? Beyond the obvious, the grey areas are what Verhoeven positively delights in dragging you into. And that may be where some have a problem with Elle. It may very well be a modern classic. I rather suspect it is. Deeply impressive and sumptuous-looking with a truly great performance from Isabelle Huppert but, whilst it leaves a lasting taste in the mouth, that taste has certain rather toxic elements.
“A well-deserved 18-certificate“, says co-director of the festival. Ain’t that the truth.
Released nationwide Friday 10th March 2017.
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