The genius of Elle is how it engages with attempts to unpack it. Director Paul Verhoeven is chiefly known, to English-speaking audiences at least, for making films that are putatively satirical but fundamentally bone-headed: Basic Instinct, Total Recall, RoboCop. But with his first film in a decade the septuagenarian has made something that foregrounds the interpretation of its lurid shocks.
Based on Philippe Djian’s novel ‘Oh…’, Elle fits in a novel’s-worth of ideas without ever dragging. The elevator-pitch summary is trite – a wealthy woman is raped in her own home, and sets about trying to identify the culprit and take revenge – but whereas Verhoeven might have once exploited this scenario primarily for titillation, here he tells a story that’s alive with implications and complexity.
The woman in question is Michèle Leblanc, played by Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come) with a fascinatingly chilly insouciance. It’s not that Michèle is unbroken by her violent rape; she’s also, seemingly, unfazed by it. Despite receiving threatening messages from her rapist, a man who could easily be someone she knows, she allows life to continue as usual. It’s the various threads of Michèle’s life that are the main focus of Elle, but her day-to-day relationships are always seen in the context of the film’s opening rape scene.
The control Michèle has over the resentful young men who make violent video games for her company, the power-play between her useless son and his demanding wife, and the humiliating new romance between her ex-husband and his yoga instructor – all of these dynamics are now pregnant with violence and gender politics. There’s also an affair, harassment in the workplace, and a shocking part of Michèle’s past that’s too good to spoil, but which adds another wild element to a film already juggling several.
The initial reaction to Elle, after the shocked laughter, is nervous dismay. Is this… OK? Does it check out, in a fourth-wave sense? Everything about the film withholds surety. Is Michèle a ‘post-feminist’ heroine or a parody of the ‘strong female character’ trope? Is Elle an ‘empowering’ take on sexual assault, or does its emphasis on self-reliance seem like ‘victim shaming’? Is it witty and subversive or mean-spirited and incoherent? Is it progressive or retrograde?
We’d put our money on the fact that Elle is artistically sound. If it were only intended to outrage then it wouldn’t be so intelligently constructed, so carefully thought-out and ambiguous. Simply baiting audiences doesn’t require such a complicated trap. Elle is a multi-part machine designed for provoking thought rather than outrage.
|What||Elle film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
10 Mar 17 – 10 May 17, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more information|