The audacious and often outrageous Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, RoboCop) directs a new film “Elle” that is unlike any other he has done, in both spirit and tone. Rather than go for an overt flavor of noise and Pop kitsch as in “Total Recall” or “RoboCop,” the narrative builds slower, punctuated with sudden jarring shocks which are the hallmark of this auteur.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a CEO of a videogame company. She lives in a nicely kept Paris townhouse. Michele is comfortable, spirited and well dressed. But little known to her co-workers she has torments. Her father is in prison, being denied parole. Back in the 1970s, he was a notorious serial killer, who very nearly eviscerated his victims. Most were young women and many had been children. As a result, people who know stare at Michele and regard her with disgust.
One afternoon, a man in a black ski suit viciously attacks Michele in her home, raping her. A gray cat is the only witness.
Michele chooses not to report the horrible crime, reasoning she has had enough of the police during her time with her monstrous father.
She keeps it secret from her passive son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and her mother (Judith Magre). Covertly, Michele haunts gun shops and weapon supply stores, while appearing outwardly unfazed.
Little by little however, one becomes aware that Michele is pre-occupied with sex, her game concept suggestions turn prurient and she relishes an easily seen act of masturbation.
Michele wonders who attacked her. Is it her ex, Richard (Charles Berling), her lover Robert (Christian Berkel), or her employee Kurt (Lucas Prisor)? At least Michele can count on her handsome but enigmatic neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) who is always ready to help her close the windows in the event of a sudden mistral.
Huppert, who won the this year’s Golden Globe is a wonder to watch, precisely because one does not know exactly what her character will do, be it revenge or inaction as in someone in the grips of paralysis or PTSD.
This is clearly one of Huppert’s best roles. Verhoeven is to be commended as well. Rather than go for the stuff of comic book pulp, he aims here for the territory of Patricia Highsmith or Joyce Carol Oates.
While the narrative may at first seem unreal, the earthiness of Huppert keeps everything firmly grounded. For existential fare and new territory for the director, “Elle” is the well-desrved winner of the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It does not disappoint.
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