Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Isabelle Huppert
Watch Elle online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Google Play
The name Paul Verhoeven conjures up a cinema of the extreme, yet what’s most noticeable about Elle is how its extremity is deeply ingrained into the very texture of the film. This is a far cry from the visceral, censor-baiting imagery of Robocop or Basic Instinct. Here, the transgressive quality is more elusive, harder to cut away from: a provocative swirl of ideas that challenge conventional notions of taste or morality.
Verhoeven achieves his effect with a cold, lucid observation – the subject matter is so startling that it continues to work its dark magic, even as the burnished images give the appearance of being a classy, highbrow French art movie. Indeed, that’s half the scandal, as Michele (Huppert) is raped in her home, yet continues to go about her business – and a business, at that, which involves producing video games in which tentacle beasts molest and murder women.
The cognitive dissonance is far more effective and perturbing than any straightforward exploitation. It’s possibly because in Huppert, Verhoeven has an actress whose fearlessness is matched by the technical gifts to do Michele justice. Hers is a mercurial portrayal of a woman who has effected a steely control against the petty complaints of friends, family and wider society. Far from a victim, she is a formidable, prickly character, who rather enjoys the power her iciness gives her.
But, nagging away at her is unresolved trauma in her past, which explains both her decision not to report the rape to the police, but also the scandalous sense that she may be courting it. Why is she so intent on finding her attacker? At first, this appears to be a Ms 45-style revenger, but things take a more complex direction when she realises who the culprit is.
There’s a problem, however. The film is far less interesting once the rapist is unmasked. Until then, the subplots allow this to be a screwed-up detective thriller, in which Michele even gathers the suspects around for an awkward, very funny Christmas meal. Afterwards, no matter how provocative the central relationship, the other characters are themselves unmasked as red herrings and symbolic subplots. It leaves a lot of narrative flab for this hitherto lean storyteller to cut through and rather dilutes the impact of his twisted power games.
Elle is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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