Where Hollywood actresses fear to tread, in comes Isabelle Huppert. And thus why Verhoeven packed his backs, learned French, and moved his story from Chicago to Paris.
Of the myriad ways the chips could have fallen, in Elle it had to be none other than the normal and most logical, though not before the viewer earning their stripes; at a staggering 130-minute runtime, Verhoeven’s patience does not waver. And neither should your tolerance, for, indeed, a requisite for absorbing the inner workings of its hard-nosed lead lies largely in understanding her in whole, hence an exposition delivered in crumbs, not by the spoonfuls. And not for the want of a thrilling alternative, as this risks diluting the enigma of a woman triumphantly stood larger than the sum of traumas, long past and current. A presumably Parisian setting is stage to the trying times of Michèle LeBlanc’s fifty-plus-year existence, and a recurring life pattern no less. A woman seemingly sat at the crosshairs of life’s barrage of hardships which befall some more profusely than others.
Beginning with the rhythmic grunting and shoving taking place off the screen, unfounded comedy turns to utter shock as the film opens with her assault by a masked intruder midday on her kitchen floor. And true to Chappellian wisdom, it was a matter of a smooth cinematic transition before she shrugged off the ordeal stopping only for an STI check, as if a mild case of the cold; an inconvenient pit stop along her course of dick appointments. Whereas in theory many a man in her position would “take that shit to the grave,” I watched in awe of an unyielding stoicism made believably plausible by Huppert’s commanding screen presence as she labors on with a grueling videogame design schedule pausing only briefly to announce the episode as if her very own scarlet letter to bear, a nuisance waiting to crop up in the next social call, possibly, but admittedly nothing a tongue-lashing wouldn’t put to bed. Her father is serving life, and if denied parole now, it would make ten years before his next bid for release, but it is not so much daddy issues as her accidental implication in his killing spree and the ensuing cloud over head ever since. To be branded a pariah that young is a burden too great to carry into adulthood as one duels with a public life no matter how minuscule their exposure.
In hindsight it was a sensible approach of her to get checked if only to have assurances, though opting out of enlisting the police justifies a plot and plugs possible plot-holes. Her post-traumatic bouts are captured as “reality merged with dream” when the encounter plays out while lost in a reverie, each time showing a different outcome, with her bludgeoning the assailant in one iteration with a handy ashtray. Of the loaded topic of rape, Verhoeven maneuvers through the minefield and comes out untouched for the most part thanks to the way the drama is presented. For Michèle, turning to the cops would only put the bullseye over her head again given her peculiar history, opening the floodgates to, in her mind, an investigation with the wrong leads, a bit left for later to come to light. Other than that, a horny octogenarian mother, a self-conscious ex-husband and author, and a son stuck in a bad relationship and dead-end job round up the ensemble of her needy, dysfunctional stragglers. Verhoeven at once handles comedy, drama and some horror tropes even, all undercut by a clear thriller veneer as Michèle juggles demands both professional and private along with personal needs (yes, even those of sexual constitution) while enduring the potential of another break-in. Knowing her father’s news-making probation hearing, it could be a retaliatory gesture why she’s being harassed or the charged content of her video game (also featuring a tentacled abomination violating a human female) and the creative disagreements festering in her studio. It would appear the attacks could be coming from anywhere until her list of suspects dwindles to a manageable number, and her armaments down to a weapon of choice, but Verhoeven, as if sticking it to America, makes sure the US flag gets a cameo at a French gun store as Michèle picks up an ax and pepper spray instead.
By chance, Elle is perhaps a nod to Haneke in both Cache and The Piano Teacher, also starring Huppert. Whereas the stalker angle borrows from Cache, The Piano Teacher inspired a similarly conflicted, volatile protagonist with a fractured parent-daughter bond. When the identity of the intruder into her home—and sender of the anonymous text messages—is shown as the midpoint revelation, it stretches the shock value too thin to expound upon, and this necessitates a new mood to tide you over with the result an obvious pressure to wrap things up. I am not sure if Verhoeven makes a mess of it other than how lopsided the film becomes pacing-wise as it attempt to tie all the meaningful loose ends.
Bertolucci, and maybe Pialat, can probably claim some credit for Michèle’s dangerous sexual escapades (Last Tango in Paris and To Our Loves, in that order) and her inner seductress (The Dreamers) and with liaisons this illicit, one can’t look past the sordid predilections of deep-rooted sexual desires too risqué for lovers content with the vanilla stuff behind the cover of a draped window. The psychological to-and-fro is front and center now, and it reaches a brazenly feverish pitch when the hunter and hunted are no longer defined. Games are just games until the affair in question skids beyond the periphery of acceptable threshold and well into anything-goes territory. Control is what we all crave; rape is the oldest mechanism of dispensing and depriving control. Fearless might have been an appropriate superlative were Elle, a subversive melange of gender dynamics, conceived in the studio corridors of post-Weinstein Hollywood, or any era for that matter, but, for Europeans, mere mortals might one add, it being another Wednesday at the cinema is ample introduction.