Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Fr-Ger. 2016. 131mins
Paul Verhoeven has never been afraid of depicting narrative complexity or violence in Dutch, in English and now in French. Cannes Competition entry Elle features a tour de force turn from Isabelle Huppert whose self-assured-and-aloof register is a perfect fit with Verhoeven’s taste for far-fetched human behaviour presented as plausible. Suspenseful and unsettling from first frame to last, this delectably twisted tale of a woman who reacts in unconventional ways to being raped by an intruder would appear to have commercial potential wherever adults go to the movies.
This audacious, irony-laced, convention-jumbling tale is just plain fun to watch.
Michele Leblanc (Huppert) lives alone in a large detached house in the well-to-do Paris suburbs. Michele, who runs a very successful video game design firm with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), is a pragmatic decision maker who seems only mildly thrown by developments that would reduce most people to quivering distress. She’s a strong, sharp woman — but not exactly a role model.
The film starts with a black screen and the unmistakeable sounds of a man and a woman struggling. We’re soon shown Michele pinned to the floor of her own elegant dining room by a tall man dressed in black from head to toe including a ski mask. It’s a shockingly abrupt and violent rape that leaves Michele with a prominent bruise near one eye and enough bleeding below the waist for a tell-tale red stain to slowly colour the white foam in her post-assault bubble bath.
Most women would call the police. But, as we later learn, Michele harbours a strong and fairly understandable distaste for law enforcement personnel.
It’s said of people with unnerving backgrounds that they carry a lot of “baggage”; Michele has a whole luggage store worth of daunting events on her emotional CV. But what makes her a riveting protagonist is her capacity to roll with the punches — sometimes literally.
The core cast of characters consists mostly of couples. Michele’s well-meaning but inept son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is expecting a baby with pert but shrewishly out-of-his-league Josie (Alice Isaaz). Michele’s ex-husband, academic and novelist Richard (Charles Berling), has a new, possibly inappropriate flame (Vimala Pons). Best friend Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) has designs on Michele. Michele has a cordial relationship with her across-the-way neighbours, banker Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and his lovely, deeply religious wife, Rebecca (Virginie Efira). Veteran actress Judith Magre is a superb choice as Michele’s mother Irene, who is completely unembarrassed about her overtly sexual relationship with a much younger man (Raphaël Lenglet).
Irene urges her daughter to re-establish contact with her elderly father whose health is failing. Michele’s not interested.
Michele re-experiences the violent intruder episode a few times in her memory — but she’d probably forget the nasty encounter altogether were it not for the rude text messages the assailant manages to send to her phone. And then there’s the hack of one of her firm’s video games that’s a bit like being cyber-raped all over again.
Verhoeven keeps thing suspenseful from start to finish no matter how many crises get flung Michele’s way. Thus, much as in the director’s Black Book, serial outrageousness comes across as ‘Some people lead really eventful lives’ instead of ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ The red herrings are all narratively intriguing.
Musical score and production design shine in the service of this entertainingly amoral romp, which is confidently awash in welcome ambiguity. Two-camera set-ups by DP Stephane Fontaine afford the audience a privileged view of invariably intense incidents. Editing keeps us off balance but is never confusing. And there’s plenty of dark humour in curt dialogue exchanges.
Philippe Djian’s fifth novel to be adapted to the big screen — the best known beyond France being 37°2 Le Matin which became Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue — has been augmented in effective ways. The adaptation from French novel to American screenplay (the original plan was to shoot in English in Boston or Chicago until it dawned on the production that Huppert was the brave unabashed presence required) to French-language screenplay is admirably smooth.
The script even manages to combine a variation on the old Lothario ruse “Would you like to see my etchings?” with the horror film tradition of never agreeing to go into the basement with a creepy guy — and puts a new spin on them. Why is Michele such a tough cookie? Who cares? This audacious, irony-laced, convention-jumbling tale is just plain fun to watch.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Production companies: SBS Productions, Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion, France 2 Cinema, Entre Chien et Loup
International sales: SBS INternational, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt
Screenplay: David Burke, based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Dijian
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Editor: Job ter Burg
Production design: Laurent Ott
Music: Anne Dudley
Main cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Christian Berkel, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet