Some people just DGAF
Fuck. Fuckin’ hell that was a raw watch. No not in a bad way, more like a grueling gauntlet. This film was one of the most tense, discomforting, and dark watches I have had. The closest comparison I can make to what I felt in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), a relentless intriguing film with scenes that I had to literally turn my head away from the screen because I couldn’t handle all of it. My comparison isn’t light either, the first scene after the introductory credits in Elle is the rape of our main character (off screen) by a masked figure. When the assault is done and the perpetrator leaves, our protagonist cleans herself up and goes about her day as if nothing happened. You quickly find out that surviving an attack like that is the least of her worries.
You see, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is the hated head of a video game developer in France who’s carrying on an affair with the husband of her closest friend, is dealing with her emasculated son not showing any initiative for himself, her ex-husband is a skirt-chasing mess, her mother is dating someone several decades her junior and she’s frequently found as the target due to something horrible her father did. That’s a shit ton to take in and all of this is revealed to you before the middle of the first act. But all these troubles in her life demonstrate to you just how hard she had become and almost nihilistic that she appeared to have disregarded the horrible scene we witnessed in the beginning of the film. However, it is clear that is not the case and she changes her routines ever so slightly in order to protect herself while having vivid recollections of the rape and even resorting to revenge fantasies.
This film is a character study of someone who has taken so much shit in her life, that she’s almost numb to any pain that come her way and she very calmly (and quite coldly) reasserts her power. To get to this point, she ends up distrusting all the men in her life on the suspicion they could have been the rapist. This part of the movie is where Isabelle Huppert injects as much personality as she can into Michèle, and her interactions with the other characters becomes an absolute mesmerizing experience to watch. Her take-no-shit attitude alongside her exasperation with how weak willed her son, mother and ex-husband are to Michèle made Huppert out to me as the boldest performance for a lead actress in 2016 next to Viola Davis’ role in Fences. Huppert deserves every ounce of praise she has received because this is one of those legendarily great performances that stand head and shoulders above other thespians.
Assisting Huppert is the bold writing and direction from Paul Verhoven, the infamous Dutch director behind Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. And if you’ve been following his films, the subject matter for Elle suddenly doesn’t appear that shocking by comparison. What is surprising though is that Verhoven plays it straight adding his dry, gallows humor in only certain parts. Which is pretty restrained for Mr. Turn A Guy Into Hamburger Meat or Sir Take a Sci-fi Book Taught in Military Schools and Make it a Metaphor for Fascism. My point is that Verhoven is the exact opposite of subtlety, but he uses daring nature to tell a much more realistic story (complete with muted colors as opposed to his traditional out there imagery) that still finds a way to impact you.
But Verhoven may be more suited to handle this material for more than his unrelenting style but in terms of his attitude towards nihilism. You can see Verhoven’s disdain for humanity in several of his previous films, but Elle turns the misanthropy into the theme for the piece. If nothing matters, it doesn’t matter how the feelings of her friends and family Michèle are hurt and her own pain is nothing to bother with too much. Hell in one scene she ends up trusting her life that she and you know damn well that she shouldn’t trust but goes for it anyways. Initially it was a bewildering scene, but then came around to understand the nihlistic world view is essentially central to the movie.
What’s even more intriguing is that you catch yourself agreeing with Michèle’s actions more often than not. Her son, for instance, is so unbelievably whipped by his girlfriend and “supposed” mother of his unborn child that it becomes a near comical subplot that Michèle is dealing with. Michèle openly talks shit to him but you end up finding there’s a reason for her tough actions. This also extends to her ex-husband and his failing writing career as he tries to recapture some of his glory with dating a much younger woman. That whole plot line as his own satisfying twists that I genuinely did not see coming and again found myself laughing at. And yes, it was weird that I was giving horrified chuckles in a movie that began with a freaking sexual assault.
I slammed Passengers because it took the concept of rape by fraud and decided to do nothing to explore the concept and instead morphed it into a romance which made it come across as a tone deaf pile of mediocrity. Elle, on the other hand, tackles the subject with maturity and even presents the actual assault as a violent, unsensual act which is sadly a rarity in Hollywood which has frequently used sexual assault as either some way to get a nude scene out there or for some half-assed motivation for the male “hero.” Verhoven’s piece, on the other hand, puts all the focus on the woman in her path to take back the power and agency that was violently taken from her. And Michèle goes about her path not through some twisted revenge fantasy a la I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left, but through a mind fuck of deceit, temptation, and good ol’fashioned manipulation. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Honestly, can’t think of too much to criticize. This is a damn fine film, and the best foreign film for 2016 second only to The Handmaiden for me. I’m giving this a strong…