The true centerpiece here is Isabelle Huppert’s performance.
Elle begins with a cat watching an off-camera rape scene, collateral crashing and struggling screams the only soundtrack. That’s our introduction to Michele LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert). We watch her lay on the floor stunned as a masked man wipes her blood off of his pelvis before making a hasty exit. Without sounding like exuberant clickbait, what Michele does next will shock you. She cleans up. She tidies the broken shards of the trauma she just experienced. Michele bathes, clothes and goes on about her day. It’s haunting how clinically she moves past this horrendous event.
The film is being billed as a rape revenge thriller, but that is a terrible misnomer. This isn’t a prurient exploitation flick built around a bloodthirsty quest. It’s an off-kilter, darkly comedic exploration of one woman’s life and how trauma, both recent and from the past, shape her interactions with those around her. To say Elle is unusual is an understatement. With Showgirls helmer Paul Verhoeven behind the camera, one might expect a sleazy depiction of taboo subject matter. But the most shocking thing about the film is how pedestrian much of it feels. There’s still tension and psychological dread, but it’s coupled with a slice of life element as well. It’s like someone asked Verhoeven to settle down and make a ponderous eurodrama, only for him to subvert every expectation of the form.
Before reconciling the transgression that opens the film, Elle takes its time showing us Michele’s everyday life and her many fractious interactions with men. She runs a video game company where an army of young men bristle at her orders and superior understanding of player psychology. Her ineffectual ex-husband pitches silly game ideas at her to keep his mind off his failures as a novelist. Her inept son is moving in with his pregnant girlfriend, completely oblivious that the child isn’t his. She’s fucking her best friend’s husband and lusting after her uptight neighbor’s beau. Also, her father is a convicted serial killer.
Michele’s world is already full of drama and contention, but her attack casts a suspicious pall over every new interaction. Without bludgeoning the viewer with genre appropriate foreboding, every man Michele comes into contact with becomes a candidate for the mysterious masked man who violated her. Those whodunit undertones are less thrilling than disturbing. The sexual assault is horrifying, but the notion that any one of the men in her life could be the one responsible for it is even moreso. The film builds somewhat casually to the revelation of the rapist’s identity, but once that cat is out of the bag, the film veers off into a direction far more troubling and interesting than simple vengeance.
The true centerpiece here is Isabelle Huppert’s performance. With a lesser actress in the lead, Elle could still be a fascinating curio from an aging provocateur, but it’s Huppert’s daring work that elevates the entire project. In Michele, she’s found perhaps the greatest role of her career. She is fierce, sharp tongued and characterized by a dispassionate sense of exasperation. Michele just seems so fucking over it, and Huppert makes that perpetual irritation its own kind of swagger. No other actress this year commands the audience’s attention so totally with the appearance of little to no effort.
It’s Huppert’s unique screen presence and boundless sense of bravery that allows Verhoeven to probe as deeply as he does with Michele’s narrative. On paper, the way this film depicts the aftereffects of sexual trauma reeks of a misguided masculine perspective skewing a foreign experience for entertainment value. But in execution, Elle is a hypnotic character study that excels at presenting the complexity of human nature. Nothing in Michele’s world is black and white. Cutting fifteen or so minutes from the runtime would make for a more taut and effective piece of cinema, but in its best moments, Elle is hilarious and horrifying, affecting and numbing. Some may see the film and find little more than aesthetically engaging provocation, but few other pictures this year leave you with as much to reflect on.