Fantastic Fest Review: Elle – Paul Verhoeven’s Psychological Bombast

Paul Verhoeven is back. This is not the bombastic Paul Verhoeven of Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, or even Black Book. Elle is a more psychological Verhoeven although there are still moments of psychological bombast.

Elle - Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle
Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

When Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home, she is determined to resume her normal life and business. The video game company she owns with her friend has a big launch. She takes care of her medical needs but only mentions it to her closest friends to tell them she refuses to talk about it further, or report/prosecute it.

Elle is determined to to make it difficult to sympathize with Michele. She pressures her game designers to make sexual violence more graphic. She is having an affair, judging her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz), and for good measure totals someone’s fender while parallel parking. She rebuffs her friends’ desire to be compassionate which is her right but perhaps a tad confrontational. I can’t help it though. The crime of rape is so evil I still sympathize and chalk up any unusual behavior to coping mechanisms I can’t comprehend.

Michele’s psychological path is full of twisted decisions with which viewers will rightly disagree but Michele is fascinating all the way. She’s pushing our buttons as far as how we want a survivor to behave, what is good mothering and/or tough love, what is truly empowering.

We gradually find out about the sins of Michele’s father. Are they being visited upon his daughter? Were they her sins too or are they just the explanation for why she doesn’t want to report her rape to the cops?

The rape scene is implied at first, though the aftermath is still graphic and bloody. Just when I thought Verhoeven wasn’t going there we see the full scene in flashback. There are several rape scenes actually but Verhoeven is careful to portray it as violent, not titillating.

Elle - Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle
Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

I’ve got to call out the video game animation here. Video games look way better than that now. They even specify this game is for PS4 which is capable of far more detailed character animation. The sexual violence depicted in the game is broad but I’ve seen movies be more egregiously uninformed in this area. The game designers are mostly hot Eurostuds. This is still the director of Showgirls. Everyone looks good!

Elle is also set at Christmas time so it could make an appropriate double bill with Die Hard. Of course, Elle is not fun like Die Hard. Its antisocial holiday sentiments are not delivered with a wink. This is hardcore as you’d expect Verhoeven to be and if you don’t like what you find, that may be the point.

Viewers will debate how satisfying the conclusion is. I find it narratively satisfying but does it right a wrong? Does Michele subject herself to further trauma in her pursuit? Has she even gone further over the edge?

Elle - Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle
Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Rape/revenge is a problematic subgenre of movies. There hasn’t been a really satisfying one, because there’s a fundamental problem with the premise. No matter how brutally she avenges herself on her attacker, there’s no way to unrape. There’s no possible revenge that equals the crime, let alone alleviates it. I suppose the same is true of any revenge movie. When Steven Seagal kills the men who killed his wife, he’s still a widower. Nothing brings her back, but I guess those kinds of movies seem more frivolous than rape. Elle leans into the discomfort in addressing Michele’s pursuit and that might be the best you can do with this genre. Make the whole thing about the discomfort and questioning.

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