“…this is a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche…”
When the central theme of your film is that of brutal rape, yet the gravity of such an incident is then somewhat downplayed, and almost brushed off by the victim herself, it tells you that this is not a conventional Director’s take on the well worn theme of unwarranted assault and retribution.
No stranger to sexual or violent content in his films, Director Paul Verhoeven takes hold of the reins in this his slightly warped thriller, Elle.
Michèle Leblanc (the reassuringly superb, Isabelle Huppert), is the boss of a successful video games company. She is gradually revealed to be head-strong in character, yet slightly unbalanced in both her demeanour and actions. This can almost certainly be attributed to the fact that she is the product of a highly disturbed childhood – her father having been an appalling and reviled convicted mass murderer – which has rendered Michèle a somewhat erratic personality, and rather emotionally detached from the events that occur in her day to day life.
Michèle falls prey to a masked intruder on her own doorstep, and a forceful sexual assault takes place. Far from exhibiting the behavioural patterns of hysteria and self-loathing that we might have expected, she doesn’t so much as even notify the police, instead choosing to remain calm and carry on.
It’s curious behaviour to say the least, but one senses that this is a woman whose experiences earlier in life have resulted in something of a twisted psyche, enabling her to just accept things that others would consider far too taboo or utterly repellent.
It becomes apparent that Michèle’s rape was not in fact an isolated incident when a personalised pornographic animation is emailed to her at work, this time portraying her, once again, as the victim of a rape. True to character, Michèle calmly sets about trying to track down the perpetrator believing, understandably, that it must be someone from the workplace, and that these two recent events must therefore be linked.
But, we must consider that she works in an industry accepting of what would otherwise be considered extreme or sexually inappropriate, yet one that justifies such content by compartmentalising it into something rather more fantastical and crucially, unreal. It should also be considered that Michèle’s rather quirky ‘anything goes’ personality is something of a magnet of attraction for a rather unstable friend-base. The chief protagonist of a workplace stunt such as this therefore may be much harder to get to the bottom of than it could have been in anyone else’s walk of life.
With all of this and an exhibitionist elderly mother who enjoys living disgracefully with men less than half her age, it’s probably of some personal relief to Michèle that the kindly new neighbours that have moved in next door seem to be upstanding characters, and offer her, crucially, a stable influence in her life. They are very much the antithesis of the often self-inflicted car crash that Michèle’s life can have a tendency to degenerate into, with only the tiniest amount of effort.
The neighbours – Patrick in particular ( Laurent Lafitte), will play an increasingly influential part in her life, but if there’s one thing that Michèle has learnt, it’s that appearances can sometimes be deceptive, leaving her to ponder exactly which people she can really trust, and what their real motives may be?
Elle is a brilliantly spun web of intrigue and dysfunction, and Michèle is very much the common denominator at its very centre.
Paul Verhoeven paints this middle aged woman as something of a dichotomy. On the one hand she’s a stylish lady in control of her affairs and actions, yet on the other, a woman with self-destructive tendencies, only too willing to surrender all control, along with any self-respect that she possesses.
Verhoeven’s Elle is a psychologically intense piece, in which he positively delights in challenging his audience, pushing the boundaries with risqué, confrontational content, and in the process, blurs all lines of division between the concept of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’.
Whilst it may not possess the sort of twist or reveal that you might have anticipated, Elle is far more than just a simple whodunit or thriller. A twisted, stylish, tense and intriguing piece that will leave you dissecting its unsettling characters, ideas and concepts for quite some time to come.