Paul Verhoeven's ELLE
Updated through 1/8.
In Elle, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) slaps her adult son in the face, sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, deliberately smashes into her ex-husband’s car and later pepper-sprays him, accidentally crashes her own car, buys a gun, and forces a much younger male employee at her video-game company to show her his penis as a penalty for insubordination—and that’s only a partial inventory of the ways in which she acts out over the course of the film. It’s unclear whether Michèle’s relentlessly aggressive behavior is in response to her having been sexually assaulted in her home by a masked assailant in the very first scene of the film, or the result of psychic wires that got crossed a long time ago; the key is that Paul Verhoeven doesn’t ask us to choose. Yes, Elle is a movie about a woman who gets raped, and to some extent, the very specific ways in which she reckons with that experience—including, after some hesitation, an attempt to discover the rapist’s identity and take revenge. But it’s more accurate to say that, as its title implies, Elle is simply a movie about a woman, full stop. As skillfully and flawlessly acted by Huppert, who at this point can seemingly do no wrong with a halfway decent part, Michèle is one of the strongest and strangest movie characters in a long time.
Verhoeven tells Nayman (the author, by the way, of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls) that, making Elle, he and Huppert were pretty much in the same zone, agreeing that the less they discussed Michèle and her motivations, the better. Talking to Melissa Anderson in the Voice, Huppert concurs: "I never knew exactly what I was going to do the day before. It was always a surprise for me as I was doing it." Anderson: "Huppert's resulting performance is a careful balancing act, one in which she refuses to soften the hard edges of the unpredictable lead character in a film that, as she notes, 'gives you more hypotheses' than answers. 'Certainly she's not afraid of going beyond certain limits,' the actress says of Michèle, whose most memorable line in the film may be, 'Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.' Endlessly complex, the Elle protagonist is, per Huppert, 'a new heroine. She has the ways of overcoming whatever: her shame, her guilt.'"
In his report on Cannes for Film Comment, Dennis Lim (author of David Lynch: The Man from Another Place) suggests that Elle's "exploration of sadomasochistic desire… ranks with Blue Velvet in its black-comic audacity…. Verhoeven is often called a misanthrope, but it may be more accurate to consider him a gleeful connoisseur of human psychopathology; it is hardly a surprise that Elle, a veritable encyclopedia of wayward impulses and desires, is also his most playful and tender film." And in that same issue, Amy Taubin adds: "Make no mistake, the comedy is dark, but Michèle, who’s at least as damaged as everyone around her, takes control, or at least as much control as the ambivalence of her desire allows. Elle walks the sexual-politics tightrope with sophistication and wit, largely thanks to Huppert."
Elle "wears the skin of Gallic suspense (to the point of often resembling a most suave Haneke send-up)," writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook, "yet its spirit, embodied by Huppert’s impeccable, blade-like turn, feels generously comic. This is a story, after all, that features Huppert diddling herself while peeking at a married neighbor holding plaster Nativity statuettes, and closes on a wise exchange between women who’ve had their share of male chumps. Such thorny flashes of subtlety and ambiguity should come as no surprise fro the auteur behind RoboCop, Showgirls and Starship Troopers—perhaps only a profoundly sardonic artist to attain Elle’s simultaneously hard-edged and impishly humanistic view of relationships. Verhoeven is now the same age as Buñuel when he directed That Obscure Object of Desire. May his French period last even longer."
Writing for the BBC, Sam Adams suggests that "even a diehard Verhoevenite previously unaware of its existence might get through the entire movie without guessing its director. In part, that's because Verhoeven is working in French, a language in which he's never made a film, and, until he began preparing to make it, didn't comfortably speak. Although it's based on Oh..., a novel by the French author Philippe Dijan, the screenplay was written in English by David Birke, with an aim towards making Verhoeven's first US film since the turn of the century. The subject matter made that impossible, but if production had been shifted to France for the sole purpose of allowing Huppert to be cast in the leading role, it would have been the right decision."
Filmmaker's Vadim Rizov finds "nothing exploitative or unserious about the film’s psychological sketch of rape’s fallout, which involves complex variables of childhood trauma, how that can play out sexually as a desire to relive same, and a lot of other stuff I’m not qualified to talk about. (The film’s thesis, if it has a clear one, is closer to Mysterious Skin's complex examination of sexual trauma than, say, Basic Instinct.) Huppert is perfect in an enormously complex part, and the film is overstuffed with other threads that, while fascinating on their own, make the generally energizing whole feel a bit bloated."
"Also in the mix," adds Sam Dickson at 4:3: "Michèle befriends her neighbors, a polite religious couple, and ignores pleas from her mother to visit her estranged, imprisoned father, Charles LeBlanc. He is a source of primal trauma, a ‘monster’ notorious for committing a demented, murderous rampage in the 1970s. The film’s deft maneuvering through these multiple threads, which even converge into the kind of manic dinner party sequence you would find in a far more conventional comedy, is a bravura achievement." Verhoeven's "ongoing relationship with producer Saïd Ben Saïd, who has also funded recent late career films by David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma, is a promising prospect given that the filmmaker’s audacity, humor and directorial acumen clearly remain intact."
"Verhoeven gives viewers at least five plausible suspects in the movie’s suspenseful first half," writes Michael Smith, "but, this being a Paul Verhoeven film, he then prematurely reveals the rapist’s identity in order to better direct our focus elsewhere (i.e., on the perverse character psychology and subversive anti-religious themes). Plot-wise, it’s as twisty—and twisted—as provocative earlier Verhoeven films like Basic Instinct and Black Book."
"Trying to discover the identity of the masked rapist is nothing short of a paranoid proposition, since the attacker is every man," argues Diego Semerene at Slant. "Virtually all of the film's male characters could have easily done it, or wished to. Rape here isn't the evil deed of the deranged few, not the vicious idiosyncrasy of mass murderers and privileged frat boys, but the foundational latency of men, even if only some may transition to the act—physically or virtually. To desire them, then, as Michèle does, means having to constantly negotiate the unspeakable violence that constitutes them, in the bedroom and at the gun range."
"This is the complex French thriller of quality that only a schlock-master like Verhoeven could make," writes the Oklahoma City Museum of Art's Michael J. Anderson.
"I was reminded of Verhoeven’s 2012 picture, Tricked, which had a story stitched together from audience suggestions," writes Matt Fagerholm at RogerEbert.com. "That’s sort of how Elle plays, as it veers from one jaw-dropping twist to the next." Huppert's "character in [Mia] Hansen-Løve’s [Things to Come] ponders how life can be lived without a divine moral compass, and in a way, her character in Verhoeven’s film manages to answer that question with a straightforward epiphany."
Writing for Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's blog, Kelley Conway suggests that "Elle is a hybrid of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989) and The Piano Teacher (2001), borrowing Almodóvar’s rape victim fascinated with her rapist and Haneke’s masochistic ice queen, also played by Huppert."
"This may be Verhoeven’s most misanthropic film," suggests Steve Erickson at Gay City News, "yet, with almost all the men turning out to be dangerous jerks, but it finds a grain of hope in a crypto-lesbian relationship. In the age of trigger warnings, Verhoeven is just as out of place as he was when he made Showgirls, but Elle shows him adapting back to working in Europe, albeit not as smoothly as in his 2006 Black Book."
For Kenji Fujishima, dispatching to Movie Mezzanine from Toronto, Elle is "Paul Verhoeven at the height of his artistic powers."
Notebook editor Daniel Kasman talks with Verhoeven about a new method of working that the director picked up during the making of Tricked and its effect on how he stages a scene—and more.
Update, 10/16: Writing for Reverse Shot, Genevieve Yue finds that it's "as if Verhoeven originally shot two films that were later crammed together in editing: the jarring and perhaps unerotic thriller, and a family dramedy that plays out between Michèle and all those who depend on her. The latter, a snarky and sharply observed set of deeply entrenched familial tensions, is the real surprise; I think no one expected Verhoeven’s return to filmmaking to contain an extended dinner party scene plucked from Maurice Pialat or his descendant Arnaud Desplechin, or even August: Osage County…. Although Huppert’s dramatic versatility has been acclaimed for decades, her comedic chops are still underrated…. This side of the film is more appealing, and simply better, than the moralistic amoralism of its unerotic rape revenge plot."
Update, 11/1: "This perilously campy film," writes Johanna Fateman in the new issue of Artforum, "in which unfunny things are often played for uncomfortable or cynical laughs, is committed to ambiguity as both narrative aesthetic and moral safety zone—or moral hazard. Elle veers wildly off its rape-revenge course before dramatically righting itself (maybe), all the while denying us any certainty about its enthralling heroine’s motives. Ultimately, it also denies us the sense of a hidden logic that might keep us fully engaged with our own private puzzling and conjecture, but—thankfully—Huppert’s performance keeps us engaged with Michèle."
Updates, 11/10: From Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club: "It’s become a cliché of art films: the traumatic act of violence whose blank non-acknowledgement is a putative structuring absence that recasts banalities in a light of alienation or unsettlement and so on. But that’s too simplistic for Paul Verhoeven, who’s made a career out of having his cake and eating it too. He is both a provocateur and a gonzo craftsman; from Dutch successes (Soldier of Orange, The 4th Man) to Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), the director has found a way to merge dark satirical wit with a taste for excesses of sex and violence. Elle is a challenging film, but challenging precisely because it’s entertaining, because it’s laugh-out-loud funny, because it indulges its kinks."
Huppert's Michéle and Hillary Clinton "have much in common," suggests Belinda Luscombe, writing for Time:
Both are operating in noted boys’ clubs—that is, videogame design and politics. Both have had a lot of success and are considered to be unusually competent in their field. Both are subject to vicious anonymous attacks because of their gender. In the movie an employee puts Michéle’s face on one of the videogame victims’ bodies, in much the same way as people have created violent imagery or made violent suggestions featuring Clinton. Both have husbands with a certain history.
But Michéle is ruthless, a woman who will stop at nothing, no matter how unethical or cruel, to get what she wants. For some that’s where the comparison with Clinton ends. For others, that’s exactly where it feels most familiar. Watching Elle is like taking a refresher course on the phenomenon that Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine articulated before her concession speech—”it’s uniquely difficult” for some people to put their trust in a woman who wants power.
Updates, 11/12: "It’s a psychological thriller, a strangely dry-eyed melodrama, a kinky sex farce and, perhaps most provocatively, a savage comedy of bourgeois manners," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. "Mostly, though—inarguably, I would say—it is a platform for the astonishing, almost terrifying talent of Isabelle Huppert."
"If you saw Huppert in Michael Haneke's 2001 erotic thriller The Piano Teacher, you'll know that she can serve up steely and kinky pretty much on demand," writes Ella Taylor for NPR. "Behind her sustained deadpan in Elle and the misleading shades of beige in which she's clad lurks a barely contained ironist and black comedian channeling, with quiet glee, the bracing nihilism of the man who made Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Never was such flat affect delivered through such expressive eyes."
"For about its first hour and a half, Elle struck me as a masterful meditation on the complex causality of rape culture," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "I will freely admit that for Elle’s last half-hour I was befuddled as to the motivation of just about every character… Even after two viewings, I’m not sure I fully understand what Elle is setting out to accomplish in terms of subverting the clichés of rape revenge drama; in some ways, it may even be reinforcing those clichés. But as I watched, I never doubted that I was in the hands of a master—two of them actually, Verhoeven and Huppert."
"Elle is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres," writes Sheila O'Malley at RogerEbert.com. "But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and 40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Barbara Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room."
Kevin Lincoln for Vulture: "It isn't the rape that's so appalling (though the rape is appalling); it's people that are appalling, and irrational, and oversexed, and goofy. You might love Elle, or you might hate it, but there's one thing that's for certain, aside from Huppert's virtuosity: There aren't many movies out there that go even half as far as this."
Updates, 11/20: "Michèle is not merely visiting revenge upon a single sadist but, you sense, rebuking a society that would like to regard her as nothing but helpless prey," suggests Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. "That stance of hers will outrage many viewers, as Verhoeven intends it to, but the question of whether Elle is pernicious nonsense or an excruciating black comedy is brushed aside in Huppert’s demonstration of sangfroid."
But then, on another page, Richard Brody: "Verhoeven’s world is the exception that titillates not to challenge the rule but to sucker viewers into overlooking it, ignoring it, and dismissing it. His films’ ambiguities and counter-clichés don’t so much challenge verities as muddy conspiratorial waters; it’s a cinema of disinformation masquerading as transgression. What’s more, far from being a view of a strong woman who acknowledges and acts on her desire, Elle is a story of a lifelong victim, a character so exceptional and troubled that it thrusts both her desire and her actions into the realm of the anecdotal, the pathological, and the ridiculous."
"Elle finds Verhoeven more gleefully self-aware, more triumphant with moral ambiguity than ever before," writes Emma Myers in Brooklyn Magazine. "At once a perverse psycho-sexual thriller and a venomous comedy of manners, Elle boldly wears its contractions on its sleeve—and due to the beyond brilliant performance from Isabelle Huppert, actually manages to pull them all off."
"Elle is readily the most sophisticated feat of storytelling I’ve seen yet this year, fleet and supple, precise and ironic," writes Ray Pride for Newcity Film. "It’s an assured, savage comedy and it is shocking and thrilling and oh so funny."
"If it’s cat-and-mouse, it’s Tom and Jerry, in that the littler beast taunts and foils the bigger, as he aims to maim her," writes Fiona Duncan for the TIFF Review. "The film is also Krazy and Ignatz, in that, both parties basically love (or need) each other. Whatever it is, Elle pertains to the bestial, to the collective dream of culture which Verhoeven shadow puppeteers expertly. The reptilian brain. The snake in your pants. Vagina dentata. Fucking like bunnies."
Updates, 12/25:"Verhoeven, who learned French for the assignment, is ferociously on point throughout, seemingly positioning every shot and pause for maximum wrongness," writes Andrew Wright in the Stranger. "As uncomfortably sharp as his work behind the camera is, Elle would be unimaginable without Huppert, who takes things farther into the dark than most films could adequately contain, melding wit, haunted resolve, and jagged bouts of sensuality to unpredictable, fascinating effect. Even if Verhoeven’s deceptively jocular approach leaves you cold, the feelings of directorial manipulation fade whenever she’s on the screen."
For Sloan Science & Film, Sonia Shechet Epstein talks with screenwriter David Birke "about the role of technology in the film’s story."
Update, 1/8: In the current issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Elena Lazic argues that "the fact that the victim’s incapacity (or perhaps her refusal?) to perceive the incident as an attack on her person is simply accepted—even applauded—by the men in her life, reveals their misogyny in a scathing and original way. The empathy they should have expressed wasn’t based on their respect for her at all, but simply on a convention, on an expectation of society.
Elle thus proves to be one of Verhoeven’s most complex and deft films."
Update, 3/20: "Elle has been frequently misdescribed as a revenge tale," write Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López for Sight & Sound. "Michèle protects herself and undertakes her own investigation, but definitely does not seek revenge against her attacker—even once she knows who it is. In its final third, the film goes in a less predictable and more disquieting direction… But, against all likely odds, Michèle turns her story into one that is positively therapeutic in its affirmation."