The opening scene of Paul Verhoeven’s new film “Elle” is so striking and disturbing that you cannot help but admire how firmly and effortlessly he and his lead performer Isabelle Huppert establish the overall tone of their movie without any fatal blink. They are willing to shock and disturb us right from the very first shot, and we can clearly discern that they are fully prepared for going all the way for more challenging things to unnerve and fascinate us.
Now some of you are probably hesitating to watch “Elle”, but I must tell you that this twisted mid-life crisis thriller is too good to miss for many reasons. While unusually restrained compared to Verhoeven’s previous sensational thriller films like “The 4th Man” (1983) or “Basic Instinct” (1992), the movie is thoroughly provocative and compelling for its unforgettable mix of disturbing psychological morbidity and naughty black humor, and Verhoeven and Huppert are utterly fearless with their tricky story materials.
Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a single middle-aged woman running a video game company. During that opening scene unfolded at her house located in an urban neighborhood of Paris, she is brutally raped by an unknown male invader wearing a ski mask, but, to our bafflement, she does not report this terrible incident to the police after the man is gone. After pulling herself together for a while, she cleans the mess, and then she takes a bath before her loser son comes to her house. When her son notices a bruise on her face, she lies that she had a bicycle accident.
As we are baffled more by this strange behavioral response of Michèle, Huppert, a master of elusive human compulsions, keeps her appearance tight and straight while her character goes on with her daily life. She is assertive and demanding as usual to her technical employees during their meeting on a new video game still stuck in its development stage, and she curiously looks unperturbed by its blatantly violent contents. When she has a dinner with her ex-husband, her co-worker/best friend, and her current sex partner who is incidentally her co-worker’s husband, she frankly tells them about her rape, and her revelation surely makes their dinner quite awkward although she remains distant to her incident as if it were a minor incident to be soon forgotten.
However, it looks like the incident will not simply go away from her. Like any rape victims, she feels anger and regret as recollecting what happened on that terrible day, and then she finds herself stalked by someone who is apparently the one who attacked and raped her. At first, it is just a simple texting message, but then this hideous man in question seems to be somewhere around her, so she becomes more suspicious about several men around her than before. Besides her ex-husband and her current sex partner, there are other potential suspects, and one of them particularly looks fishy for good reasons – or is he just your average red herring?
Now this sounds like a typical revenge thriller movie plot, but Daivd Birke’s adapted screenplay, which is based on “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, takes a far more interesting route as focusing more on what is gradually revealed from its complex heroine. As her life and personality are examined and reflected via several important supporting characters in the story, it is implied that Michèle has already had survivor’s instincts behind her frigid façade for a long time, and we are not surprised to learn later about a certain fact in her past. In the ironic contrast to her misanthropic attitude, she adores her black cat, and her capability of compassion is evident during a brief scene involved with one unfortunate little bird, which is one of rare gentle moments in the film.
Magnificently embodying the edgy, stark, and resilient humanity of her character, Huppert gives another superlative performance to remember along with her recent lead performance in “Things to Come” (2016), which is also about a female mid-life crisis accompanied with one cute black cat. Watching these two quite different but equally excellent performances together, you will behold the wide, impressive acting range of an exceptional performer who can naturally convey to us so many things via her detached but expressive face. While never seeming to try hard, she can be very funny or touching as shown in “Things to Come”, but then she also can be supremely creepy or disturbing as shown in “Elle”.
With Huppert’s performance functioning as the strong dark heart of the movie, Verhoeven dexterously plays with our expectation. While there is the constant amount of subtle tension around the screen, he does not hesitate to throw a few effective shocks to jolt us, and he also tickles us with several naughty moments of acerbic black humor. While I chuckled at a couple of sly visual cues shown during the scene where the neurotic girlfriend of Michèle’s son gives a birth to her child, the most viciously humorous moment in the movie comes from Michèle’s Christmas party, which suddenly ends with an unexpected happening which surprises everyone including Michèle.
Around that point, Verhoeven and Huppert keep going further with no compromise at all. I don’t dare to reveal anything about the second half of the movie, except that 1) it defies our expectation again when the identify of her rapist is fully exposed in front of Michèle and us and 2) that fascinating ambiguity of Huppert’s performance keeps us guessing about her character’s motives and intentions even during the finale.
After his critical/commercial success of “Blackbook” (2006), Verhoeven has been rather silent during last 10 years except making a short film “Tricked” (2012). While he is no longer that bloody naughty boy who made “Robocop” (1987) and “Total Recall” (1987), “Elle” shows us that he is still a master filmmaker who can play the audiences like a piano, and he and Huppert did a terrifically provocative job to stupefy and excite us all here.