Elle is a tale of dangerous passions, but not in the overwhelmingly sadistic way you might imagine. I mean, yes – vile, depraved sexual acts are carried out against Paul Verhoeven’s protagonist(?). Audiences may have trouble staying silent while Isabella Huppert continually relives her “enlightening” victimization, yet Verhoeven’s approach to pitch-black comedy somehow makes the film’s most serious moments unexpectedly comical. It’s humorous relief by way of death, insults and utter moral disregard. It may be strange that an erotic thriller’s most impressive moments come in the form of laughs, but it only shows the depth Verhoeven is able to create – no matter how telegraphed his story might be.
Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, a recent sexual assault victim hellbent on solving the puzzle of who forcibly penetrated her. Was it the seedy co-worker who takes every chance he gets to belittle her managerial skills (Lucas Prisor)? The clean-cut, religious-by-association neighbor (Laurent Lafitte)? Richard (Charles Berling), Elle’s ex-husband? With so many players, Michèle’s options are limitless – but it’s all up to her detective work since she insists on avoiding any police intervention. It all makes sense once it’s revealed that Michèle’s father is a famed mass-murderer who changed the course of her life, but still, her friends beg Michèle not to go it alone.
Eh, as the French say, C’est la vie.
Verhoeven’ warped approach to sexual desires does well by never truly defining how Michèle feels about her illicit encounter. It’s obviously that she’s horrified by her masked intruder’s ferocious attack, but curiosity also piques. An awakening, of sorts, if you will. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before – a repressed male/female embracing torment after trauma – but it’s Huppert who elevates Elle above other similar sexual thrillers by a thin margin.
In trying to establish as my red herrings as possible, Verhoeven predictably turns every relationship into some kind of torpedoed disaster. Michèle has an ex-husband, but she’s sleeping with her best friend’s husband. Her son, Vincent, couldn’t be happier to be a father – except the baby CLEARLY isn’t his. Then there’s the whole serial rapist part, which – once again – is a male, rounding out a large collection of testosterone-driven characters who are all undesirable in their own way. It’s certainly a statement about societal issues we’re facing now – why not shine a spotlight on the male gaze – but Verhoeven’s story becomes overburdened by so much sinfulness. Why not focus on the heinous crime Michèle keeps bottled up, instead of overcrowding tension with so many seedy asides?
But, like I said, Huppert is the reason this crazy Law And Order: SVU homage ends up working. Without her distinctly French persona, Elle wouldn’t be able to dance a fine line between petrified and ever-so aroused. Nor would she be able to deliver such inappropriately-timed zingers to such comedic effect. She can play the victim, hero, badass – without sounding like a cliché, she can do it all. The way she grabs hold of a cock and jerks it into a waste basket is unparalleled in its situational awareness (at work), much like her more vulnerable moments, where Michèle is forced to address her strange desires head-on. Lies and backstabbing only help Huppert turn lawful insanity into her personal whodunnit case, tremendously for the better, and rarely for the worst.
Yet, Elle doesn’t strike with the hardest-hitting erotic thrillers out there, no matter how impressively Paul Verhoeven juggles so many unexpected tones. Isabella Huppert is stunning in her sophisticated put-togetheredness despite her attacker, but Verhoeven’s twists are foreshadowed without much to hide. Certain shockers like Vincent’s pregnancy surprise slip through, but in the grand scheme of things, Verhoeven becomes distracted from what matters by these little subplot nuggets. You’ll laugh when you shouldn’t, wince when you should and feel the pain of a victim’s shame (it’s over, why tell police?) – just manage expectations when you’re almost two-hours in and your foot starts tapping out of run-time fatigue.
It's hard not to anticipate many of Verhoeven's moves, but Isabella Huppert is too good to ignore in Elle.