The thorniest, iciest character study I’ve seen in quite some time, and that isn’t a criticism. Elle is provocative material played with intelligence and chilling lack of emotional pity or yearning for sympathy. Talking about it feels like trying to navigate a minefield.
Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc is a woman who refuses to be defined by the men in her life, or the tragedies and traumas that they inflect upon her. It begins with her father committing a mass murder when she was ten-years-old, and how she refuses to even acknowledge his existence or allow his presence, his crimes, or the trauma he thrust upon her as defining characteristics of her life. It follows up with the opening sexual assault, and her eventual twisted relationship and revenge games with her attacker.
Violence and sexuality are deeply intertwined throughout Elle, and only pity can be seen as a hindrance to Michèle’s agency as a character. She refuses to report her assault to the police, a leftover jaundiced reaction to the familial tragedy and insanity of her father’s killing spree, and brushes off her friends shock and horror when she casually drops the bomb in the middle of a dinner. Then she returns to her attacker, agreeing to play his sick sexual fantasies as some form of therapeutic self-healing and blood-soaked revenge.
The fact that any of this works rests entirely on the work of director Paul Verhoeven and star Isabelle Huppert. Verhoeven has tamed his more lurid instincts from his Basic Instinct days, and keeps the material on a lighter, more respectful vibe to Michèle’s particular psyche and responses to a dehumanizing event. Michèle seems nearly unconvinced or unbothered, take your pick, with the typicality of society’s morality. Her self-possession and iron-clad dominance could break even so mythic a grand dame diva as Joan Crawford with her deflating release of “oh,” or arching of an eyebrow, or the pursing of her lips. Verhoeven frames Huppert’s face as a defining example of condescension and luxurious aggression.
Elle knows that it’s playing with dangerous ground, and Huppert is practically gleeful in excavating the terrain. As an actress, Huppert seems drawn to the dark side and in revealing the twisted humanity of her monstrous women. Think of her impressive and terrifying work in The Piano Teacher for reference, and know that Michèle is a queen among vipers that could stare down any sociopath and make them blush. Her origin for a yearning of self-injury is rendered by Huppert as a near throwaway aside with unsettling indifference to just how insane what she’s saying sounds.
Even more disturbing is the casualness of the rapist’s eventual revelation. Prior to this moment, we had been treated to a seemingly never-ending parade of possible candidates, it basically boils down to just about every man she encounters in her everyday life including an ex-husband and several employees at her video game company. Elle treats this initial rape, and Michèle’s reaction, is a mere point-of-fact in navigating misogyny’s ugly commonality and routine occurrence.
If this all sounds like some crazy intellectual exercise, then you’re probably on the right track in navigating Elle. It’s a film about a female protagonist who turns into a morally ambivalent character by engaging her darkest, wildest, most disturbed desires, and then turns them on their head. She transforms the tools of her own dehumanization into a sexual release, regains her own agency, and the entire thing feels like some strange, audacious feminist screed. Risky and dangerous sexual encounters and desires are nothing new, but Elle feels dangerous and bold thanks to Huppert’s difficult, unnerving performance.