Elle: NZIFF Review
Like some kind of balancing act between bleak darkness and dark humour, Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE walks a singular tightrope through the audience, caring not for the view below as it drops its extraordinary bombs.
A simply stellar Isabelle Huppert stars as Michele the head of a video game company whose life is targeted when she’s viciously sexually assaulted in her home. (A fact that Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from as he instigates the film by unleashing it right at the very beginning.)
But rather than head to the police to report the rape, Michele shockingly shuns the legal avenue (for reasons that become clearer as the film unfurls, just one of Verhoeven's strength as he concocts the cinematic web) for a bath and to simply get on with life. Verhoeven’s use of blood in bubble bath before it’s casually swept to one side by Michele is one of the film’s over-riding stark and shocking images.
With a cold laissez faire approach, Michele casually announces over dinner with some friends that she’s been assaulted; the response from one friend is to ask the waiter to hold the champagne being opened – yep, it’s Verhoeven through and through using the pristine veneer of the French language and attitude to prod and provoke his audience from the get go.
As the story progresses in Elle, you’re better off not knowing what’s due to happen, as part of the devilish delight in the film comes from the gradual teasing of details in this psychological thriller that picks at you like a cinematic scab, daring you to pull it off and delighting in the equal waves of pleasure and pain as you do so.
In this adaptation of Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel “Oh…”, 78 year old provocateur Paul Verhoeven certainly knows how to press the buttons of those watching, and how to give the whole thing a kind of amoral sheen that’s steeped in both complexity and a twisted veneer.
Huppert helps in large parts too, making Michele a character which it’s hard to get a grip on.
On the one hand, her ordeal implies elicit sympathy for her plight, but on the other, her immediate behaviour post-event sees you unsure of where your allegiances and sympathies should lie. It helps that she’s incredibly commanding from go to woah as this disturbed journey plays out. One character tells her, “You never give anything truly of yourself” and perhaps this is the best summation of the character, thanks to a subtly nuanced turn from Huppert as the shocks and the twisted, yet empowering, scenario plays out.
Ultimately, Elle is one hell of a firecracker of a film - a cinematic amoral powderkeg that's due to explode under the weight of such provocation but whose explosion ends up in the safe hands of Paul Verhoeven. There'll be debate aplenty about what you've seen on the screen, but there'll be no debate about the performance of Isabelle Huppert and the bravura of Verhoeven.