Cannes review of Elle
Paul Verhoeven returns to form with a blackly funny rape revenge thriller. (If that’s what it is)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Christian Berkel, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz
Cannes, in competition, 131 min
Early at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jodie Foster — the star of The Accused let it be remembered — complained that male directors too often use rape as a motivation for female characters. You might reasonably argue that Paul Verhoeven’s bizarre, fascinating Elle offers the most explicit imaginable demonstration of her thesis. Isabelle Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a video game proprietor (yes, I know) who, after being raped in the opening minutes, spends the course of the film processing that violation. Or does she? The oddest and most potentially controversial aspect of Elle involves Michelle’s relative insouciance. Following the attack, she brushes herself down, goes to work and generally manages to avoid falling apart. We have some idea why she doesn’t tell the police. The child of a mass murderer, still alive and behind bars, she feels that les flics made a mess of that case when she was a child. Her icy calm is harder to justify. One suspects that, with almost anybody other than Huppert before the camera, the film would curdle into misanthropy. As things stand, Verhoeven offers us a black social comedy that rates among the best films of the Dutchman’s odd, odd career.
Certain (ahem) biological functions suggest that Huppert must be playing somebody a decade younger than her actual age. Thank goodness. We have become used to sexagenarian men pretending to earlier flushes of youth and, if we did not know Isabelle had been around for a while, nobody would think to question her turn as a middle-aged cynic with terminal family disorders. Her glamorous mother (Judith Magre) has taken to picking up much younger men. Her largely useless son, who works in a fast-food outlet, ends up with a savage shrew who gives birth to a son that clearly can’t be his own. To add to the confusion, Isabelle has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband.
Featured in occasional flashbacks, the rape is depicted with relative restraint for this director. A man in a ski-mask bursts in the patio doors and forces Michelle to the ground while her typically uninterested cat watches calmly. Later, she tries to piece together clues as to his identity. Do the obscene videos — depicting one of her company’s fantasy characters assaulting her — that she receives by email suggest that a colleague is responsible?
It may seem a stretch to cast Huppert as a video game mogul, but an early explanation that she came to the business via literature just about explains it away. The film is clearly asking questions about her remote complicity, as a creator of violent adolescent entertainment, in the perpetuation of rape culture. But no explicit parallels are (wisely enough) drawn.
Indeed, for most of its duration, Elle plays like a fascinatingly odd family farce. Huppert has never been better as a woman who is so attuned by life’s cruel absurdities that she almost seems to expect the awful attack that fires the story. The film is one long sigh at the uselessness of modern life from somebody who — despite being demonised in the media as a child — manages to live that life very well. Huppert is brave, upright and very, very funny. Nobody is better at casting her eyes to a Gallic heaven. This year’s Cannes has yet another very strong female performance to consider for prizes.
It is open to question whether (to return to Foster) the film justifies its risks with motivation. But the sheer style of the piece is not in doubt. Stéphane Fontaine’s camera eats up the luscious set design. Anne Dudley’s score swoops in Hitchcockian waves. Wasn’t the director of Showgirls and Basic Instinct supposed to be a vulgarian?