When describing the plot of Elle, one feels the need to tread very lightly. That’s because director Paul Verhoeven’s latest pushes the boundaries of political correctness and – perhaps in some minds – plain good taste. It’s a movie that has every reason not to work, every reason to incite outrage.
But against all odds, Elle turns out to be a subversive powerhouse of a film: risky, bold, and liberating in a way you never could have imagined. This is a film that demands to be seen, preferably more than once.
The film opens on a black screen, with sounds of a struggle. It then cuts to an image of Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) being attacked in her upscale Parisian home by a masked assailant. Then something interesting happens: Michèle gets up, sweeps up the broken glass scattered around the floor, takes a quiet bubble bath, and then orders some sushi, taking the time to ask the person on the other line what a “Holiday Roll” is. It’s only a few minutes into the film, and already we feel that uncomfortable bubble building in our chest. Are we allowed to laugh? Such a question feels so silly, so unimportant, considering what we just witnessed. That feeling will linger for the entire 130-minute runtime of Elle.
The attack is the inciting incident of the film, but Verhoeven is far more interested in Michèle herself. The head of a company that specializes in sexually violent video games, she has her hands full, dealing with her hapless son and ex-husband, male-employees that attempt to undermine her, and her ongoing affair with her best friend’s husband. But when her rapist starts texting and leaving notes to let her know that he’s watching her, Michèle is thrust into a shocking game of cat and mouse, one that at any minute can spiral out of control.
Michèle is a whirlwind of contradictions. Her outward appearance would suggest that she’s unfazed by the attack, yet she makes a point to change the locks and purchase weapons for self-defense. She doesn’t report the attack to the police, but when out for a fancy dinner, she stops the pleasant chitchat to matter-of-factly tell everyone at the table about the assault. “Wait a few minutes to pop that,” one of the friends says as the waiter brings a bottle of champagne to the table. And once again, we feel the need to laugh. Verhoeven is a master at mashing up conflicting tones and making us feel uncomfortable.
In the expert hands of Huppert, Michèle is simultaneously vivid and inscrutable. She daydreams about what a bloody revenge against her assailant would look like, before her thoughts evolve from revenge to sexual fantasy. And it’s at that exact moment that director Paul Verhoeven proves himself to be one of the most audacious filmmakers working today. Michèle will encounter her attacker again, but to say any more would be a spoiler. It’s something you need to see and experience for yourself.
Elle uses sexual assault to explore bigger themes about male/female power dynamics, consent, and the roles we’re expected to adhere to in society. Verhoeven and Huppert have introduced us to the ultimate feminist icon, wrapped in a twisted masochistic package.
Elle is now playing exclusively at MDC’s Tower Theater. For showtimes, click here.