There is so much that is beautiful about Elle that distracts from how ugly of a film it often is. I never imagined a film that opens with such a frightening rape scene could be so funny. But Elle is not really about the rape, it’s about the fractured relationships of the lead character, Michèle, played by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert.
Michèle, the head of a successful video game company, is shockingly assaulted by a masked rapist in the opening moments of the film. The crime doesn’t initially seem to bother her much as she cleans up glass that was broken during the assault and then cleans up herself. It’s first perplexing why Michèle would not immediate seek the police. It is soon apparent that Michèle’s life is already fairly chaotic having to deal with her spoiled son (Jonas Bloquet), his brash pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), her ex-husband (Charles Berling), her best friend and co-worker (Anne Consigny) whose husband (Christian Berkel) Michèle is having an affair with, and perhaps most of all, her vain mother (a fantastic Judith Magre). Looming over all of this is Michèle’s lack of relationship with her father, with whom she shares a dark past, and the mocking messages she receives from her rapist.
As such, the rape — which would normally be the focus of a film — is almost forgotten at times in the convoluted shuffle of Michèle’s relationships. Much of the discussion of Elle is centered on director Paul Verhoeven, the director of RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and, yes, Showgirls. Verhoeven doesn’t play delicate with the subject matter, and he uses his best thriller instincts here.
There is a major revelation that comes not even three-quarters through the film that turns the film on its head, yet the ending is still too far away. The “Why?” of this revelation gets dragged out for too long. Along with that, Verhoeven probably also loses a good deal of viewers because of the several scenes of sexual assault and rape, but they are key to the emotional state of Michèle in the film (there is more I can say, but I don’t want to spoil the film).
Elle is Verhoeven’s best film in nearly twenty years, and it’s wonderful see his work getting attention again. As beautifully shot and compelling as Elle is, it certainly isn’t a film for everybody, which took some bravery on Verhoeven’s part. Fans of thrillers who don’t mind watching the mysteries of a 130 minute film unravel will undoubtedly be on board.