At the end of the title sequence just when the name of director Paul Verhoeven appears on screen we hear some objects smashing on the floor while a violent struggle is taking place. As these sounds continue the frame turns black and remains that way for a short period of time. The actual first image of the film is that of a cat who’s a bemused onlooker while the lady of the house Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is being raped.
How this mature woman will cope with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted is basic-ally the main subject of this film. Its originality lays in the fact that the brutal rape seem-ingly hasn’t effected her too much. She certainly manifests a rather cavelier way of dea-ling with this event which one would expect to be rather traumatising. She doesn’t call the police but on the contrary cleans up the rape crime scene and takes a bath to clean herself while having a glass of red wine. When her son comes home and notices a bruise on her face she quickly comes up with the simple excuse that she fell off her bike.
The next day at work she and her entire team are watching a demo for a new video game she’s producing. In the demo we see a woman being assaulted by ‘some kind of monster’. In her feedback afterwards she’s complaining the segment was not violent enough and in addition mentions she couldn’t detect the pleasure on the woman’s face.
When during a dinner she’s having with some friends (one of the attendents will appear to be a lover, another her ex-husband) in a restaurant she casually mentions she has recently been the victum of a break-in and consequent rape she’s not looking for moral support but appears to be more interested in their (predictable?) reactions. Only the behaviour of her cat (its passivity during the rape and the ‘present’ of a bird) seems to be able to shake her up somewhat.
It’s obvious that Verhoeven is not interested in depicting a typical main character from a straightforward rape victim/revenge film, ranging from Nuts (1987) (you know, that film in which Barbara Streisand is being raped by Leslie Nielsen a.k.a. inspector Drebin from Naked Gun) and The Accused (1988) on the one hand to Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45 (1981) and The Brave One (2007) on the other, to name but a few. Instead Michèle Leblanc is yet another strong female character in a long line of strong women in his films, manipulation is often their game and sex one of the tools for survival, we’ll find out in due course what she’s up to.
Even though the movie is dealing with a rather heavy subject matter it is actually extreme-ly funny and some audience members may at first wonder if their laughter is perhaps in-appropriate. But partically the way Isabelle Huppert portrays Michèle in her dealings with her son and his pregnant girlfriend, her elderly mother and her toyboy, her ex-husband and a (male) lover, you often can’t help but role over laughing. And we haven’t even brought up her newly arrived neighbours from across the street of whom the wife is an extremely devout christian. The scene in which Michèle is spying on them while they are setting up a Nativity set and a subsequent Christmas dinner scene, well … .
Many great films have centered around or featured infamous rape scenes, such as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), De Palma’s Casulaties of War (1989), Gaspard Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and most of the body of work of Verhoeven for that matter, but none where you as an audience member left the movie theater thinking: now that was fun! I’m obviously not referring to the rape scenes.
If you are familiar with Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre you’ll notice many similarities or nods to his previous work and you’ll discover that this time round he’s leaning towards a more subtle/restraint approach, at least for a Verhoeven film that is. A few examples: Just compare the ‘castration’ scissors scene from De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man, 1983)with the ‘stigmata’ scissors scene in Elle. Or ‘study’ the amount of ‘bodily fluids’ on display on the bed sheets in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) in the “He got off before he got offed” scene versus the perpetrator ‘leaving a message’ in this film.
The way the documentary TV footage is used revealing ‘her troubled past’ -which upto that point was only hinted at during conversations with her mother and sudden violent reactions from people who seem to recognise her for some reason- reminded me somewhat of the projected home movies of several fatal outings in The Fourth Man. Both sequences leave room to suggest the female lead characters may have been a in one way or another a participant in the horrific events that took place. Not unlike Catherine Tramell or Hazel Dobkins (played by Dorothy Malone) in Basic Instinct, a character which Sharon Stone, in the part that made her famous, keeps in touch with as a sort of ‘murderess technical advisor’ for her crime novels.
As usual Verhoeven can’t help himself but poke fun at religion (or religious people) in the best tradition of Luis Buñuel, one of the directors favorite cineasts. It’s important to note that Verhoeven had a brief but intense encounter with a strict Pentecostalism movement in his early adolescence when his girlfriend accidentally got pregnant, an event he also incorporated in his film Spetters (1980) and which he discusses in some detail during his directors commentary for that film and during several interviews.
What remained is an ongoing fascination with the historical figure of Jesus. He’s become a fervent participant and respected member of the Jesus Seminar and also wrote a book on the subject called Jesus of Nazareth. He has been trying to make a movie about the life of Christ for ages, but considering his basic premise is that Jesus was not the result of an immaculate conception (as is the popular ‘belief’) but instead that of (Holy) Mary being raped by a Roman soldier, you can understand why he’s been having difficulty getting this project greenlit anywhere, let alone in Hollywood. This however would be a Biblical film I might actually be looking forward to seeing. Furthermore, in Elle there’s a strong suggestion that Michèle’s son is not the biological father of his girlsfriend’s child, making him kind of a Joseph-like figure.
Elle is an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s ‘Oh…’ which Verhoeven initially tried to set up in the US, finding the right actress proved troublesome. In hindsight it was a blessing the film eventually got made in French with Isabelle Huppert who is truly amazing. The film is very fresh and one wonders what a Hollywood version of this material would have been like. Only in the scenes in which Michèle suspects 2 of her colleagues of being the potential rapist the film tends to lean towards a more Hollywood clichéd approach but even here Verhoeven eventually found an original way out.
The DoP of the film is Stéphane Fontaine, his visual palette consists of skin color and light gray tones and the entire film appears to have been shot with the slightest of diffusions. His credits include 3 collaborations with Jacques Audiard (a.o. Rust and Bone), the recent Captain Fantasic and the upcoming Pablo Larraín biopic Jackie starring Natalie Portman in the title role of Jackie Kennedy.
The overall acting is brilliant. The cast mainly consisting of great French actors such as Charles Berling (L’ennui, 1998) in the role of the ex-husband, Judith Magre who plays Michèle’s mother and Laurent Lafitte as the neighbour. The German actor Christian Berkel who plays the wife of Anne Cosigny is the only actor Verhoeven worked with before in Zwartboek (Black Book), you may recognise him from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall and Tarantino’s Inglouroius Basterds. And there are 2 Belgian actors: Jonas Bloquet as the son, known from the controversial masterpiece Elève Libre (a.k.a. Private Lessons, 2008 directed by Joachim Lafosse) and the Kevin Costner vehicle 3 Days to Kill (2014) and Virginie Efira who plays the neigbour who already starred opposite Huppert in Mon pire cauchemar (My Worst Nightmare, 2011). To convince yourself even further of what a fearless actress Isabelle Huppert is you should see the scene in Mon pire cauchemar in which she lets herself be ridden on her back like a horse by Man Bites Dog (1992) star Benoît Poelvoorde.
This could have easily resulted in a euro pudding, certainly given the fact that the Dutch director doesn’t fully master French but instead the film is vintage Verhoeven and it’s hard to imagine any area’s the film could have been improved on.