It begins with a cat, gazing nonchalantly, then slinking away – while, off screen, we hear what could be pain or pleasure. We quickly realise that the cat’s owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is being raped by a masked attacker. Her reactions after the event are also nonchalant: she does not contact the police and, when finally telling friends over dinner, shrugs it off. Michèle is, however, a complicated person who likes to compartmentalise her life. Privately, she begins stocking up on weapons, changing her locks and learning self-defence skills.
Certificate 18 130m 42s
Director Paul Verhoeven
Michèle LeBlanc Isabelle Huppert
Patrick Laurent Lafitte
Anna Anne Consigny
Richard Charles Berling
Rebecca Virginie Efira
Irène Judith Magre
Within these first ten minutes, Paul Verhoeven deftly sketches a social milieu that, in an affectionate homage to the masters, is part Claude Chabrol (due to Huppert’s star presence) and part Luis Buñuel: under the pleasant facade of ‘sophisticated’ bourgeois manners lie perverse power games and secret double lives. Distinct from the more detached ‘ensemble view’ favoured by those directors, Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke tell this complex tale by closely observing the enigmatic, ever-surprising behaviour of Michèle, who is among the most memorable screen creations of the past decade.
Like everything else in Elle, cats return as a beguiling motif. When Michèle impulsively tells her neighbour Patrick about the horrendous murders committed 40 years previously by Georges, her father, she adds that he killed several cats too, “but that never gets a mention”.
Michèle has good reason to be wary of both the media and police, since a famous photograph of her as a child alongside Georges taints her as a possible psychopath. This is why she does not report her serial rape. But the film digs deeper as it unfolds, and we gradually grasp that Michèle’s psychology involves a refusal to be branded and treated as a victim – plus a desire for control (over people and situations) that is often deliciously wicked. Verhoeven invites us to enjoy Michèle’s behaviour, no matter how morally dubious it seems. This is what makes Elle so special and captivating.
At first glance, it would appear to be a typical mystery, leaning on a simple question of identity: who is that masked man? In the manner he perfected in Basic Instinct (1992), Verhoeven multiplies clues and suspects. There’s the brutish Kurt at work, antagonistic towards Michèle. There are mysterious text messages on Michèle’s phone, somewhere between erotic enticement and menace, which may come from her lover-on-the-side. There’s an obscene video that goes around the office computers, superimposing Michèle’s face on an animated woman being raped. One by one, these possibilities are dealt with – but the film has more on its mind than scattering a bunch of narrative red herrings.
Elle superimposes several ‘worlds’, or social sectors. At work, a code of professional alienation rules: the gruesomely graphic rape in a videogame is not to be confused with the real thing. On another level, devout religious belief plays a key role, also involving psychological ‘splitting’: after all, Georges committed his murders after being forbidden to ‘bless’ his neighbours’ children.
Above all, there is family (four generations, in this case), and the tangled ties it imposes. The central relationship, from this angle, is between Michèle and her son Vincent. Michèle muses that perhaps, at his birth, they missed out on that profound bonding or ‘imprinting’ known from the animal kingdom. It is precisely an assumed ‘imprint’ of this kind – of Georges’s ‘monstrosity’ on to her – that Michèle, through every effort, flees. Meanwhile Michèle’s mother keeps insisting on a more compassionate view: Georges is still human, still a father… But then, what of Vincent’s absolute commitment to the baby that – as everyone can plainly see but only Michèle will assert aloud – is not biologically his? Something other than blood ties matters here: the type of shared experience that Michèle will come to appreciate at the denouement.
Elle has been frequently misdescribed as a revenge tale. Michèle protects herself and undertakes her own investigation, but definitely does not seek revenge against her attacker – even once she knows who it is. In its final third, the film goes in a less predictable and more disquieting direction… But, against all likely odds, Michèle turns her story into one that is positively therapeutic in its affirmation.
Near the end, Michèle is quizzed by police. As ever, she keeps her cards close to her chest. This leads to a delightful payoff that depends on every secret piece of information we, as viewers, have come to accumulate about her. As the interrogator recaps the case, Michèle replies, with a slight smile: “Who could imagine such a thing?”
Isabelle Huppert gives one of the most riveting performances of her career in Paul Verhoeven’s incendiary Elle, refusing to play the victim in a challenging, twisty thriller that seeks to subvert the expectations of the traditional revenge drama. By Nick James.
+ Crossing the line
Despite the critical acclaim for Elle, a fierce debate has erupted over its sexual politics. Here one critic defends the film as a razor-sharp portrait of the patriarchal society we live in, while another condemns it as an unsavoury misogynist fantasy.
+ The Dutch master
Paul Verhoeven’s early Dutch-language films introduced the motifs that would come to define his cinematic universe, from humiliated men and ironic violence to strong, objectified women. By Craig Williams.