Elle (2016)

Elle (2016) movie poster

director Paul Verhoeven
viewed: 01/29/2017 at Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood, CA

Marketed as a thriller about a rape and revenge, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle plays out much more like a black comedy, if you ask me. Which isn’t really so surprising since Verhoeven’s cinema has such a sense of irony and satire and self-aware critique. It’s complex and titillating, unresolvedly problematic, and provocative. And actually very funny in many places.

Much praise has been thrown Isabelle Huppert’s way, and deservedly so. Her deep, inherent intelligence as a woman and actor and her complete commitment to the whole concept of Elle is what makes the movie work. Dealing not only with rape, but the complex reactions of her character Michèle, a woman more worldly and wise than the plethora of lame men in her life, Elle‘s complexity rises in part through the sexual pleasure and fantasy that Michèle experiences post-rape.

Verhoeven has often been criticized for sexism and misogyny in his films, and Elle is not going to change anyone’s mind on that subject. But here again, only an actor of Isabelle Huppert’s character and depth could play this out in a way that isn’t just 100% problematic, but raise the play and black comedy of Michèle’s complexity and intelligence in her world stupidity and sexism. Because she is a woman, partnered with another, running a company in a male-dominated, typically sexist if not misogynistic industry. This is made even more explicit in the Michèle’s doubling down on such strains in one of the meetings.

Really the film is very much about womanhood: roles, social mores, desire, power, on and on, and the long run of the film depicts a strong, intelligent, multi-faceted woman, where all the men are small and petty. The women rise above. This is not to say that it’s not unproblematic, but I think that the twists and turns of how Michèle handles events play out with humor, playing against standards, and not falling into facile resolution.

What’s interesting to me is that originally Verhoeven saw this as an American film and courted a number of big name American actresses for the role, including Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone. I don’t think this film could have worked with any of those actors, some more especially than others. Huppert makes this film work. I don’t know anyone else that would have necessarily succeeded.

In the end, my feelings are mixed a bit about Elle. But I think it’s intelligent, challenging, and quite funny.

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