By Barry Lord
It was perhaps fitting that Paul Verhoeven’s film ‘Elle’ (‘She’) was released in a week when the country celebrated International Women’s day.
Here is a story of a formidable woman, who suffers an appalling physical and psychological trauma, but somehow emerges with her dignity and self-respect intact.
Elle is provocative, disturbing and sometimes distasteful in the manner in which it challenges you to stay in your seat.
But isn’t that the function of cinema? To stir the emotions? To demand something from the audience? To make you really think what you would do in the protagonist’s shoes?
Based on the novel ‘Oh’ by Phillipe Dejan, the film stars the peerless Isabelle Huppert (rightly nominated in this year’s Oscars for best actress) as Michele LeBlanc, owner of a company that specialises in producing lurid, highly sexualised video games.
In the opening sequence, we witness her brutal sexual assault by a masked man, who has invaded her home.
Rather than report the incident to the police – she has a seemingly chequered past with the local gendarmerie – Michele simply shrugs off her ordeal, much to the bewilderment of her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) and their close circle of friends.
Unruffled by relentless, sleazy text messages and threats from her anonymous stalker, Michele uses her wit and sexuality to lure her assailant out into the open and there is no shortage of likely suspects; is it Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) the all-too-clean cut neighbour? Robert (Christian Berkel) her best friend’s husband with whom Michele is engaged in a casual dalliance? Or any of the deeply depraved young male game designers under her employ?
I will say no more about the plot particulars but there are plenty of surprises in store and the film keeps you guessing almost to the last reel.
However, this is far from a straightforward whodunit. It’s more a character study of a flawed individual and not the female vigilante revenge fantasy some may have suggested.
It is also, at times, very funny. The relationship between Michele and her naive but well-meaning son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his pushy, expectant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz) reminded me of the best Mike Leigh, kitchen sink dramas.
For the Dutch director Verhoeven (who had to relearn French to produce this film) it’s a return to the kind of character built pieces that were his trademark in the Netherlands in the 70s and 80s (Soldier of Orange, the Fourth Man) before Hollywood came calling and he made blockbusters like Robocop, Basic Instinct and Total Recall.
After 10 years in the cinematic wilderness, it’s a fine return to form.
But the piece de resistance is Huppert. No other actress could have pulled off such a complex role as Michele who, despite her suffering, is capable of testing the audience’s sympathy.
She sometimes lacks morals, empathy and understanding but you are on her side to the very end. It’s an incredible performance and one that holds the film together.
With its controversial subject matter and the fact that subtitled films are still something of a hard sell to English speaking audiences, Elle may struggle to reach an audience weaned on less demanding multiplex fare, but it’s a movie that stays in the mind for days after viewing and one that requires a proper dissection in the pub afterwards.