Paul Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct (1992) and Starship Troopers (1997) has always pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in cinema, in terms of how women are portrayed and how violence is subverted. With his newest film, Elle, nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category this year at the Academy, and starring the famous French actress Isabelle Huppert, he has gone too far.
While scholars of film and feminist theory will doubtless endlessly debate the morality, or a-morality rather, of Elle’s central characters like they discuss Hitchcock,the unsuspecting viewer will emerge shell-shocked and bewildered, and not just a little disturbed, by the highly perverse drama that they have been forced to endure in the hope that something will change to justify the time and emotional investment they have been manipulated into putting into a film that poses a series of tricks that left me in a state of unanchored confusion which eventually gave way to something close to dismay and thenfury.
Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc – an enigmatic, affluent, poised Parisian woman in her early sixtieswho finds herself the victim of a vicious assault in her own home, leaving her violated, physically and emotionally. Over the course of the 130 minute long film, there are more twists and turns than I could count as we try to understand Michèle’s motivations, feelings, and stance - not just regarding the assault but also her very peculiar relationships with her mother, son, former husband, lovers, employees, attackers, friends, and her deeply dark past.
Transgression after transgression is committed by every single character against almost every single other character in the film, leaving everyone slightly giddy but also wondering if the screenplay, based on a novel, is actually really about character, or just plot points that exploited the reader and now the viewer, forcing them to hang on in the hope of a somewhat intelligible outcome. There is none.
The people in this film are awful, barring the character of Anne Consigny, who plays the role of Anna, the beautiful, funny, warm-hearted friend and business partner of Michèle, a role that is barely mentioned in the buzz of this film - a great lapse.
Huppert’s performance is talked about in hushed tones by critics, but her stone faced cipher of a character seems more under-written to me; certainly not the fascinating study of a woman as the film’s title not so subtly suggests.
The word “nasty” is not my own when it comes to describing the film. A friend who is French described it as such, adding, memorably, that it was also a perplexing and bizarre way of trying to depict French women. Verhoeven got
it wrong -- sometimes it is funny to confound expectations, other times, it indicates a sociopathic tendency that thinks it is clever but instead is just plain creepy.