The opening scene of Elle throws you right into the disturbing chaos. Our lead character is raped by an intruder in her home leaving her bloodied and abused. As he leaves, she calmly collects herself, picks up the broken dishes, bathes, and wakes up the next day, carrying on relatively normal.
Instantly, Paul Verhoeven’s work is already disturbing. Not because the character reacts to the trauma in such a “matter of fact” manner, but because we’ve never seen such a portrayal of sexual assault that the whole atmosphere is unusual. And the aura that perturbs the air unravels in such much more darker but gloriously rich movie.
The film revolves around Michèle who, after being attacked in her home, is forced to come to terms with her own dark desires whilst hunting down her rapist. A divorced boss at a gaming company, living alone, with a lazy son turned expectant father, and a dad who murdered 27 people, as the suspects mount, so does the mystery.
The phrase dark comedy gets bounced around a lot but Verhoeven’s work here is definitively that genre. Known for Robocop, Showgirls, and Basic Instinct, it’s clear that he can work with elements of humour and menace that ropes you into the tale. With Elle, however, he takes the subject, the character, and the events on with such an humanistic flourish, that the bounding laughter you are definitely going to have comes from a realistic place. He isn’t poking fun at sexual assault, he’s just crafted a character who combats it in her own way whilst being surrounded by hapless folk. There’s just a natural comedy that comes from that provocation and juxtaposition as well as Elle’s awareness of her agency and self. She’s just droll and witty, and her assault isn’t going to strip that away from her.
Elle is also perhaps the best written character of the year. She suffers from her rape, that is undeniable, when screeches of her cat causes her to recall the traumatic events and she goes to buy weapons and equipment for protection but also she tackles the situation like a chore to be dealt with. All of this is mastered by Isabelle Huppert’s alarmingly exquisite acting ability to flesh Elle to become this strong yet broken character who had to learn resilience fast (Side Note: That’s not to say victims of rape are lesser beings for being impacted with it negatively.)
There is a tricky line that Elle has to walk in order to become the deliciously palpable and meaty movie that it is. With careful direction that tonally shifts between a usual thriller and a bleak comedy (that’s oddly very funny.) That’s not to say that this film won’t polarise people – it’ll have detractors, especially towards the end of the film. However, there will definitely be some resonance with people unable to differentiate between their darkest desires and the sexual assault that stirs a complexity within them.
The intellectual weaving of complex themes all enhanced by Huppert’s superb acting that tackles such a weighted role makes Elle a daring, different, and devastating genius movie. Explicit and grisly, humorous and harrowing, sickening and oddly fun, David Birke’s script is devilishly taken and embellished greatly by Verhoeven. Whether you appreciate the film or find it too disturbing, Elle and her tale will stick long within your mind.
Elle appears at BFI Film Festival tonight!