PLOT: A middle-aged divorcee (Isabelle Huppert) is sexually assaulted, and struggles with conflicting feelings regarding the rape while trying to move on with her life.
REVIEW: Apparently, Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE was written to be his comeback to English-language film-making, with the reaction dire enough that it pushed him to go make the movie in Europe. For what it's worth, it’s unlikely that he would have found anyone as perfect as Isabelle Huppert to be his leading lady, with this being the type of part even one tiny false moment could have destroyed.
Luckily, Huppert and Verhoeven mesh perfectly, although the result is a film that would never make it through the American studio system, or even the production offices of a daring indie producer. A black comedy about rape of all things, Verhoeven’s gallows-humor approach is shocking, if not as distasteful as it could have been. The assault is never made light of, but Huppert’s character’s reaction is unusual in the extreme.
After being attacked, Huppert’s Michelle, a video-game tycoon, calmly straightens up, bathes herself, and even orders take-out sushi for dinner with her adult son, who she lectures about his new job and apartment without ever revealing anything is amiss. The next day, she calmly goes for an STD test, only eventually revealing the truth to her ex-husband and two best friends (including a man she’s having an affair with) in a casual way.
As the movie goes on, ELLE proves to be less about the rape than you’d assume. In fact, the identity of the attacker is revealed early-on, with the two engaging in a weird kind of sadomasochistic relationship that’s pure Verhoeven. Fans of his American output may not quite recognize his touch here, although it’s very much in-line with his early Dutch work. Often perverse, but frequently funny, it’s a thoroughly bizarre film but also a wonderful character study.
Through it all, Huppert’s performance is a revelation, and if she doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar something’s really wrong as it’s one of the greatest of the year. She defies victim-hood in the movie, refusing to go to the police due to a dark history that’s made her a kind of hidden but infamous figure in Paris. At times, Verhoeven and Huppert dare to make her unlikable, as she calls her mother grotesque for her dalliances with gigolos, or chides her son with tough love, especially in regards to his new girlfriend, who she openly calls a slut. It’s tough to imagine any American actress, no matter how adventurous, submitting to what Verhoeven asks Huppert to do here, but the result speaks for itself.
Notably, ELLE also proves that despite this being his first movie in a decade (since BLACK BOOK), Verhoeven is as vital as ever. If ever a director was primed for a comeback, it’s him. With this getting raves out of Cannes and now at TIFF, maybe he’ll finally get the chance to make more movies. One can only hope.