Elle, based on a novel called O by Philippe Dijan, who also wrote Betty Blue, is Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s first French film, and features Isabelle Huppert in a performance already being touted as an Oscar contender. It is a mesmerizing, frenzied abomination, a thrilling, propulsively lurid provocation that is simultaneously classy and grotesque, refined and coarse, arthouse and grindhouse. The Hitchcock of Psycho and Frenzy, and the De Palma of pretty much everything, would love it. I did.
Some people won’t. The central conceit of the film – that a woman, Michèle (Huppert), who is raped in her home in the first scene, won’t let the event disrupt the rythms of her life – will appal some, and that’s only the starting point. By the end, the film’s sexual politics, which I won’t elaborate on here in deference to keeping the film’s many plot twists unspoiled, are a viper’s nest. Suffice to say, you are welcome to loathe this film.
Huppert – who is up there with Streep and Day-Lewis as one of the masters of screen acting – is infamous for bringing characters similar to Michèle to the screen, most notably in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). Indeed, Michèle is such an “Huppert role” that you’d think it had been written with her in mind, but that wasn’t the case. Initally, producer Saïd Ben Saïd, whose intriguing body of work includes Maps To The Stars, Carnage and De Palma’s Passion, hired American screenwriter David Birke to write an english-language version of the novel, moving the action from Paris to an American city. But Verhoeven has stated that “no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie”, and, sweeping as that statement is (and given the “level” of actress he’s referring to, being A-List or A-List Adjacent), he’s probably not wrong, given the conversation around sexual abuse going on in the US at the moment. Once Huppert expressed a keen interest in the role, the script was transplanted back to France and French. Thank goodness. It feels right there, and Huppert is the absolute mechanism that makes the whole thing tick.
It’s relentless. I can’t recall a recent movie with so much plot, so many things going on. Each scene piles on more incident, more character intrigue, more development, as if, like a shark, the film would die if it stood still. This is not a bad thing. Despite the film’s extremely polished veneer – of superb acting, top-tier cinematography (Stéphane Fontaine, A Prophet and Rust and Bone) and generally upscale Parisians in a generally upscale Paris – it really is a lurid potboiler, which would collapse under scrutiny, and certainly under the gaze of a university class on feminism.
Is the film, in terms of its sexual politics, an abomination? I don’t know. The fact that Huppert, who is all class, was so keen to be involved offers no answers, because she is obviously drawn to provocative material, and Elle is certainly that. I do know that the film is unbelievably entertaining, engrossing, thrilling and genuinely engaging – the last time I squirmed in my seat so much was during Force Majeur (2014), which I considered the best film of that year. Elle is not on the same level as Force Majeur, which truly had something to say, but it is a gloriously digestible guilty pleasure. Feel free to hate it, but also feel free to love it; I did.