Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (French for ‘she’ or ‘her’) was probably the most controversial film at Cannes this year. That honour is well-deserved, because Elle is a very difficult film to watch. Aside from being so disturbing, Elle is a brilliant film.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Michele and she appears in almost every scene. Michele runs a video game company in Paris that specializes in making games in which monsters do horrible things to beautiful young women. She insists that her game designers make these games as graphic and sexual as possible, even after a man wearing a ski mask breaks into her beautiful home and violently rapes her. Michele arms herself with pepper spray to ward off future assaults, but she doesn’t seem all that upset about the rape and doesn’t call the police. This is the first sign that something about Michele is a little off.
To some degree, her bizarre response to the rape can no doubt be attributed to her traumatic childhood. When she was ten years old, her father murdered 27 people in her neighbourhood (for which he is spending life in prison) before burning down his house. Michele was in some ways complicit in at least the fire, and the event has left her psychologically scarred (possibly sociopathic).
Michele, who’s around fifty, is having an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), her best friend’s husband, but that’s getting old. She wants the handsome young neighbour (Laurent Lafitte) from across the street, the one married to the devout Catholic who’s putting up a giant creche for Christmas (yup, it’s a Christmas film). Meanwhile, Michele’s son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is having a tough time with his girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) and their newborn son (whose skin colour is too dark for him to be Vincent’s son). And Michele’s ex (Charles Berling) is hanging around, more worried about the rapist than Michele is. I mention these mundane details to show that Elle is not your typical psychological thriller (some critics call it a dark comedy), but I assure you it goes into some very dark and twisted places.
And yet, as disturbing as the film is, it’s not as in your face as the description above might suggest. It’s actually a fairly subtle film, which is why the dark humour is not always evident. The unique Michele, despite her actions, remains a somewhat sympathetic character, thanks partly to the phenomenal performance by Huppert, who deserves an Oscar nomination. The rest of the acting is also strong. In most ways, Elle is actually a terrific film, with gorgeous cinematography, a great score and an intelligent screenplay to go along with the acting.
However, Elle is so disturbing, especially in its combination of dark humour and rape, that I can’t award it four stars.I will give it ***+. My mug is up, but if you think this film may not be for you, I encourage you to trust your instincts and stay away. This one is only for fans of dark and twisted European thrillers.