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Elle Review: Isabelle Huppert’s Greatest Performance

By  · Published on September 12th, 2016

Elle Is an Endlessly Debatable and Riveting Experience

Isabelle Huppert delivers her greatest performance in a triumphant return from Paul Verhoeven.

Ten years after his last big-screen endeavor, provocateur Paul Verhoeven returns with a triumph. Elle, the director’s first French-language film, pairs Verhoeven with an actress whose work is equally as shocking as his own. This alliance of the master director and the master actress evokes one of the most controversial, layered films in both of their respective careers, making for a endlessly debatable, riveting experience.

Isabelle Huppert, arguably the greatest actor in contemporary cinema, stars as Michelle, the CEO of a successful video game company in Paris. The film introduces Michelle on the floor of her home, with her shirt ripped open and breasts exposed. A masked man emerges off of Michelle’s body and walks out the door. Michelle has been violently raped. She gets up, fixes her blouse, and orders sushi. In the coming days, Michelle decides not to report her attack to the police. Over dinner, she casually informs her close friends that she has been raped, yet ignores their requests to get involved. With careful observation, Michelle comes to suspect two possible respective attackers, and plans to deal with them in her own way.

Much debated about Verhoeven’s film is the way in which he handles humor. Elle is a very funny film, often hilarious in fact. A rather strange way to discuss a film about a rape, yet Elle is far from being a “rape comedy” as it has unfortunately been described before. Instead, Verhoeven supplements the gravity of Michelle’s rape with a searing deconstruction of the French bourgeoisie. Borrowing from Spanish master Luis Buñuel, Elle features a series of biting sequences set at Michelle’s Christmas dinner party. With the devout couple from across the street as well as Michelle’s mother and her much younger boyfriend, the film sets up a serious of uproariously uncomfortable – yet always clever – interactions. The moments provide a stark contrast to moments in the film that deal with Michelle’s attack, yet help to point to Michelle’s unusual control over her situation.

She refuses to be the victim the audience expect her to be, and Verhoeven uses humor to emphasize that supposed disconnect. From the calm way in which to puts herself back together to her immediate decision to order takeout, it is clear that Michelle is striving to regain control. Once physically recovered, Michelle does not simply want to take revenge on the man who raped her, but also wants to take back the sense of control he has stolen. This battle for power leads to one of the film’s most exhilarating moments, when Michelle once again comes face to face with her rapist, and chooses to respond in a shocking way.

Elle is a film that is sure to spark heated debate. Some will point at the film as being unrealistic and distasteful in its depiction of Michelle as a rape victim. One critic remarked that in titling the film “Elle”, which can translate to she, that Verhoeven is designating Michelle as representative of the attacked woman. Instead, I prefer to choose the translation of “Elle” to mean her. Michelle is not a regular person; she cannot – and is not meant to – represent any rape victim other than the one in the film. It is revealed early on that Michelle is the daughter of a jailed serial killer, and hinted at that she may have known of her father’s crimes while they were being committed when she was a young girl. We do not know what Michelle witnessed, or perhaps participated in, while growing up, and it is these mysterious events that have shaped the person she has become. The scant details of her upbringing explain Michelle’s resistance to involving the police, while the details may also point to her need for control and general coldness. Nevertheless, she is complex, she is powerful, and she is inimitable.

Working with material tailored to her talents, Huppert gives the performance of her career. Evidence to her fearlessness, Huppert is radiant throughout, bringing a restraint to a film directed by an artist known for excess. The pairing of the two makes Elle a paradoxically debatable film that shall remain relevant for years to come.

Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.