When you hear the name Paul Verhoeven you can’t help but think of Showgirls. Then of course he has other movies like Basic Instinct, RoboCop, and Total Recall. Elle is quite a jump from these movies, but the question that will be asked is, is it a Basic Instinct or a Showgirls? The answer is something very different.
When Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is attacked in her own home, she surprisingly carries on like nothing has happened. The head of a successful video game company, she treats her life and relationships as ruthlessly as she does her business deals. When her attacker continues to goad her though it isn’t long before her obsession with him, and his with her spirals out of control.
Elle starts with a rape, it feels clinical and without any impact, which is strange for the subject matter. We expect it to feel shocking, but there is no emotion at all. It is not only until the main character has a flashback to the event that we are made to relive the event and see how it really affected her.
What makes Elle effective with the audience it is that after the first introduction to Michèle Leblanc we are slowly pulled into her world so that we understand her. A heavily guarded individual, her childhood experiences with her father and his crimes have shaped the woman she is today. The fact that she may have been involved in his murders just adds to her questionable nature.
While we don’t get to know who her attacker is until the third act, in many ways it is not a surprise to us. Though it is to Michèle, and it plays a huge part in how she acts with him. There is no doubt that many will find the way she acts controversial, and it is disturbing, but there is a level where we understand her actions, because of the complicated nature of her character. We also get a conclusion to the film that is more satisfying than the way the initial attack is handled.
What Elle actually is, is a film about our relationships with other people. We see Michèle’s strained relationship with her mother, a woman who refuses to grow up. Her equally as problematic relationship with her son who is in a relationship with a stronger (and aggressive) woman. The religious neighbours (especially the husband), and of course her relationship with her best friend and the husband, who she is sleeping with.
To see all of these relationships and how they affect Michèle, we have to experience her life, and this is where the film does feel to overdo it somewhat. The point is though is to darkly satirise the relationships and how they affect the main character. We come to understand that she has a certain way of living her life, which puts her at odds with the world, which may in a way explain the way she handles her encounters with her attacker. What is important though is how the film ends, and how the attacker is dealt with. Through dealing with the attack and the attacker themselves, she is able to overcome things in her past that have shaped the way she acts in the present.
It is telling that we do see a very different Michèle Leblanc coming out of the movie, and that is what is important. Isabelle Huppert does well in creating this complex character and being able to make her believable, even though she acts in such surreal ways at times. A controversial role, and with a subject matter that will put the film at odds with many, it is a brave role to take and really it comes as no surprise that her performance is as celebrated as it is.
Elle is a good film, and has that level of oddness we come to expect from Paul Verhoeven, though this time the “good” kind of oddness. Controversial and questionable at times, it is well worth a watch even though it is unforgiving in the way it shocks the audience, to get its point across.
Elle is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.