A majority of the perverse fun in Paul Verhoeven’s sixteenth feature film, titled Elle, is the smoldering performance of actress Isabelle Huppert. As the co-CEO of an upstart gaming company, she not only gets to flex her entrepreneurial muscles at her nerdy millennial staff, but she effectively ruins the lives of pretty much everyone she comes in contact with, both personally and emotionally.
In essence, she’s a tornadic force of nature that connives, sexually manipulates and defies expectations at every turn. All of this is made even more pungent since she solidifies a headstrong anti-hero presence that, for decades, has typically been reserved for the male.
If there is a weakness for Michele (Huppert), it’s presented in a smash-cut manner during the film’s opening scene, which is quite shocking and won’t be revealed here. From that moment on, Elle becomes a mordant and disturbing reclamation of identity, complete with a knotty backstory and obscure motivations that paint the film as the blackest of revenge dramas.
Even though she’s a successful business woman, her personal life is in shambles. Divorced from her husband (Charles Berling), the two still meet for dinners and parties with their friends and Michele suffers a relationship with his younger girlfriend. Her son (Jonas Bloquet) is no less helpful, bringing into her life a pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) who snidely subverts her every action and seems to gain immense satisfaction in turning her own son against her. The birth of their baby is yet another dark laugh in a long line of them.
At work, the design of an action video game which she herself decries as not being violent or tactile enough, is consistently upended by someone hacking her face onto the main character of the game during an especially nasty rape scene. To complicate matters even further, Michele is sleeping with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend and business partner.
With all this emotional savagery going on, it’s no surprise Medea is name dropped throughout Elle and the film begins to resemble a Greek tragedy. Her involvement with married next door neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) adds yet another uncomfortable dimension to the film, and the way their relationship develops would make David Cronenberg beam a bit.
There’s a lot of traffic going on in Elle and I wonder if repeat viewings won’t richen the film. I haven’t even mentioned the downright nihilistic backstory to Michele’s childhood and the actions of her father, whose image is pounded into her psyche on the local news over and over as a certain event reaches a milestone anniversary.
Based on a script by David Birke and adapted from Philippe Dijan’s novel, Dutch filmmaker Verhoeven has been pushing the envelope on mainstream sex and violence for decades now (Basic Instinct and Showgirls, anyone?) and he doesn’t shy away from the marginalized aspects of Michele here either. Basically, Elle isn’t an easy film to digest and its rhythms and explanations are never overtly explained, which allows for all sorts of interpretations. The way it balances shocking violence with dark brazen humor would usually sink any effort for those dramatic shifts in tone, yet Elle becomes all the more stronger because of it.
Huppert does become Medea in a calculated way and even though we don’t want to like her for the way she responds to certain things, at least the film remains true to her intense streak of distrust and shell-shocked psychology. It’s only natural she’s the kind of woman perfectly content to shop for pepper spray and sharp tools over groceries any day. It’s a twisted sort of girl-power logic, but one that manages to infuse the film with yet another magnificent inversion of expectations.
Elle opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Wednesday, November 23 at the Angelika Plano location.