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November 12, 2017

Elle (2016)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny

Synopsis: Imperious French businesswoman, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is raped by a masked assailant in her own home. Over the course of the following weeks, Michèle’s personal and professional lives become increasingly fraught, with the masked assailant still on the loose, seemingly set on making another return to Michèle’s home….

Review: Elle‘s opening moments clue the viewer in almost immediately to Paul Verhoeven’s clear symbolic intent with this cinematic morality play, as well as thematising the extremely wry perspective he will shroud all the unfolding action in. Snatched sounds of a woman struggling (could it be love-making or the fending off of a violent act?) are kept tantalisingly just out of the frame’s perspective as an imperious cat watches dispassionately on. When we eventually capture the climax and aftermath to what was clearly a sexual assault, this opening coda is not a prelude to a police procedural or even a conventional whodunnit, but more its slipperiness encodes the riotous and almost amoral journey to catharsis and liberation its protagonist is about to embark on.

To even use the term protagonist to describe Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle is problematic when Verhoeven’s sly non-omniscient narration casts her, at times, as almost the piece’s villain or, at the very least, its antagonist. She cuts such a ruthless swathe through the people around her: she belittles her hapless son, she sleeps with the husband of her closest friend, and – best yet – she continually condescends her cliché of a dishevelled academic ex-husband by accidentally blinding him with pepper spray and knocking the bumper off his car due to her casual attitude to parallel parking.

Although, as mentioned earlier, it’s not a whodunnit in the conventional sense as the masked stalker is essentially a metaphoric representation of a grotesque patriarchal need to violate strong women, Verhoeven’s direction makes this a cracking genre film. His tongue is too firmly in cheek at most stages of the narrative to perhaps take this too much at face value as a genuinely taut thriller, but the sheer barrage of dramas and crises that Michèle undergoes – car crashes, attempted work coups, would-be financial interlopers into her wealthy family domain, plus the big biograpical conceit that she’s the daughter of a notorious mass murderer – conveys almost through its sheer relentlessness Michèle’s primal ability to endure and, even, thrive in spite of those ‘assaults’.

Even if, ultimately, it all descends into an absurd psychoanalytical extravaganza, it doesn’t negate the skill that Verhoeven and Huppert possess in taking us on that journey. It’s also one of the year’s funniest films. The farcical Christmas party that props up the middle section of the film features one of the wittiest jokes about bankers I’ve heard in a long time. Incidentally, is it just me, or does Verhoeven’s choice of a banker as the piece’s ‘bogeyman’ lend the film a clear political, as well as feminist, perspective as well? (November 2017)

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