Overview: An affluent French businesswoman is violently assaulted in her own home and subsequently mounts her own private revenge against her unknown attacker. Sony Pictures Classics; 2016; Rated R; 130 minutes.
Violence & Condescension: Isabelle Huppert is an undeniable screen performer whose remarkable presence makes the entirety of Elle worth watching. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, Elle is about an indecent act of sexual congress with repercussions that extend decades into the past. As the sole living daughter of a local serial killer and cultural monster of folkloric proportions, Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc with an unmistakable distance from and tacit disdain for the people who populate the immediate world that she has built around herself. Serving as the head of a local video game development company in France – with a professionally incongruent background in publishing and literature – Michèle is as condescending to her audience of immediate commercial consumers as Verhoeven is to his own audience of perspective theatergoers. The lurid content of the film’s central narrative seeks to shock and titillate as much as the vulgar subject matter that Michèle willfully subjects herself to at work, but neither is a genuine source of moral outrage when greeted by a protagonist whose spiritual essence reeks of an amoral resignation to emotional feeling and sentimentality of any kind.
Out of the Past: There are several scattered moments throughout Elle that seek to suggest the psychological damage that has been inflicted on Michèle as the daughter of a nationally renowned monster. Early on in the film, a woman in a local cafe purposefully dumps the remains of a later afternoon meal upon Michèle’s lap, and calls her and her father scum. Yet Michèle more often than not remains unfazed by what is undoubtedly a source of recurring tension for her fellow countrymen. The actions that her father took against ordinary citizens are objectively grisly and worthy of moral contempt. Nevertheless, Huppert distills what must have been a traumatizing experience through a performance that neutralizes the event down to its basic elements by way of a few particularly evocative images and anecdotal references.
Provoking Apathy: Verhoeven has handled the subject of violence several times over the course of his career as a premiere filmmaker. Even if his most well known work is for trashy genre classics like Starship Troopers, RoboCop, and Total Recall, Verhoeven handles his movies with a subtle irony that is all his own. In that light, Elle is no exception, even if it is lead by a performance from a more critically well regarded actor. Accordingly, Huppert is a shining light in her own right, even if her appearence in Elle serves as a minor blip against her larger filmography. Even as Verhoeven’s latest psychological thriller bears all of the feral menace of his oft-cited erotic drama Basic Instinct, Elle is a more apathetic affair that provokes the audience for the sake of initial excitement alone. There is an uncanny primacy inherent to the sex scenes that occur throughout Elle, yet most of them culminate largely off-screen, leaving the viewer in the dark and without the consolation of a definitive climax.
Overall: Elle is a movie whose thematic nihilism seeps so throughly into the the very fabric of the film’s script and characters that its lurid content never truly shocks or titillates its audience, no matter how captivated they might be by Huppert’s lead role.
Featured Image: Sony Pictures Classics