Cannes 2016: Elle
Ten years after his last big-screen endeavor, provocateur Paul Verhoeven returns with a triumph. Elle, the director’s first French-language film, pairs Verhoeven with an actress whose work is equally as shocking as his own. This alliance of the master director and the master actress evokes one of the most controversial, layered films in both of their respective careers, making for a endlessly debatable, riveting experience.
Isabelle Huppert, stars as Michelle, the CEO of a successful video game company in Paris. The film introduces Michelle on the floor of her home, with her shirt ripped open and breasts exposed. A masked man emerges off of Michelle’s body and walks out the door. Michelle has been violently raped. She gets up, fixes her blouse, and orders sushi. In the coming days, Michelle decides not to report her attack to the police. Over dinner, she casually informs her close friends that she has been raped, yet ignores their requests to get involved. With careful observation, Michelle comes to suspect two possible respective attackers, and plans to deal with them in her own way.
Much debated about Verhoeven’s film is the way in which he handles humor. Elle is a very funny film, often hilarious in fact. A rather strange way to discuss a film about a rape, yet Elle is far from being a “rape comedy” as it has unfortunately been described before. Instead, Verhoeven supplements the gravity of Michelle’s rape with a searing deconstruction of the French bourgeoisie. Borrowing from Spanish master Luis Buñuel, Elle features a series of biting sequences set at Michelle’s Christmas dinner party. With the devout couple from across the street as well as Michelle’s mother and her much younger boyfriend, the film sets up a serious of uproariously uncomfortable — yet always clever — interactions. The moments provide a stark contrast to moments in the film that deal with Michelle’s attack, yet help to point to Michelle’s unusual control over her situation.
Working with material tailored to her talents, Huppert gives the performance of her career. Evidence to her fearlessness, Huppert is radiant throughout, bringing a restraint to a film directed by an artist known for excess. The pairing of the two makes Elle a paradoxically debatable film that shall remain relevant for years to come.