Watched: 18 August
Paul Verhoeven has been at it again, grand old provocateur that he is. With Elle he has made a film that depicts the rape of its main character, played superbly by Isabelle Huppert, as well as the psychological effects that the act has upon her, and yet despite taking on such a serious subject (and not for the first time) he also finds plenty of time to satirise contemporary bourgeois European society, taking pot shots at everything from male and artistic pride to – rather archly – depictions of violence in mass entertainment, in this particular case videogames.
Huppert’s heroine is Michèle, the co-managing director of a software developer that is about to release its new blockbuster game; we see footage of a cutscene from the work in progress, in which a giant orc brutally rapes a woman. It’s nasty and unpleasant, yet discussed matter-of-factly by Michèle and her (predominantly male) colleagues, who have seemingly become inured to the extremely graphic content (no pun intended). The parallels between the game and Michèle’s own rape, committed by an unknown assailant at the beginning of the film, are immediate and obvious.
Sharing this workspace are Michèle’s business partner and best friend – significantly another woman within a male-dominated industry – as well as lots of younger programmers, designers and developers. Of these the story only focuses on two, both men, and who are both shown – in different ways – to be weak and immature. Michèle’s understandably-cold treatment of both of them in the office is perhaps informed by her disapproval of her own mother’s relationships with younger men.
Male psychological weakness is a theme that courses strongly through the entire film, even as far as the rapist himself, the depiction at odds with his initial presentation as a physically strong, brutal and overpowering force. Michèle’s son is in a relationship with a domineering, confident and possibly unfaithful woman named Josie (Alice Isaaz), and one of the subplots of Elle covers Michèle’s gradual acceptance of and growing admiration toward the younger woman. Elsewhere, Michèle has complicated relationships with her best friend’s husband and her own ex-husband; these two men seem incredibly needy. The latter has shacked up with a younger woman; he expresses concern for Michèle’s wellbeing, though it could in fact be his own infatuation and wounded pride that leads him to hang around outside her house at night, rather creepily.
If Verhoeven has opened himself up to criticism that his latest film takes on a serious subject and shrouds it in light-heartedness and withering social critique, then it should be reiterated that the act itself is depicted in a horrifying and entirely serious fashion, as should be the case. Afterwards Michèle refuses – or fights the urge, perhaps – to be considered or seen as a victim, taking steps to protect herself and later entering into a strangely fucked-up relationship with her assailant, which confirms his identity as the rapist but leads the film off on a dangerous, psycho-sexual tangent. All of this makes for a tonally-mixed but very compelling movie, in which Huppert’s commanding performance holds everything together; her apparent ease at portraying coldness-mixed-with-resilience makes her the perfect fit for the role. It’s clear that the Dutch director shows no sign of entering into a tamer, late-life period; this is among his most brutal, violent and unsettling work, at times, yet it also contains scenes that are among his most drily witty. (****)