Paul Verhoeven’s sophisticated, twisted shocker Elle reminds us that beneath conventional exteriors can lie skeletons in closets where surprising eccentricities lurk; in this story they reach depths of the bizarre and depraved.
Although on the surface a revenge thriller, the film features complex and ambiguous undercurrents that create shades of grey and paradox. A brutal rape is not reported; the victim, Michèle (played by the eminent Isabelle Huppert), chooses to behave as if nothing happened. She is nonchalant, yet seeks to find the identity of the rapist. It is only by accident that she discovers it, and a strange dance of desire, fetish, dread and violence ensues. A facade of everyday normality disguises dark impulses. Identities are revealed to be complex, with sinister histories that border on macabre humour, the revelation of which clarifies behaviours and reactions.
Combining straight drama, suspense and dark comedy, the viewer is kept off balance throughout. This presentation of the strange lying barely beneath the surface of normal everyday life recalls Bunuel’s films, such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The family life and adultery narrative that is typical of French films – there is an echo of Woody Allen – is combined with suspense hinting at Hitchcock and Polanski.
Huppert’s performance as a defiant, tenacious woman who refuses to be a victim, yet with a response to victimhood tinged with masochism, is a tour de force. She enacts the revenge she seeks, but courts her aggressor. Partly a hybrid of the French actress’ previous roles, Michèle is a step beyond to greater complexity and nuance, reflected through brilliantly subtle, changing facial expressions. The rest of the cast is also outstanding: Laurent Lafitte as her neighbour Patrick, Charles Berling as Michele’s ex Richard, and Jonas Bloquet who plays her 20-year-old son, Vincent.
Notably superb direction, cinematography, sound and editing synthesise seamlessly to produce a polished, significant work. A controversial and galvanising movie, Elle is witty, insolent and intriguing.
Elle is released nationwide on 24th February 2017.
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