Elle | Paul Verhoven | France | 2016 | 130 minutes
Edwanike Harbour argues that despite material that could turn off some viewers, Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) delivers a perfect viewing experience with his new film starring Golden Globe winner Isabelle Huppert.
Despite the proliferation of social media and accolades via word of mouth, it remains possible to watch a film knowing as little about as possible ahead of time. Even when you avoid spoilers, not having a any preconceptions really lends itself to having as pure of a cinematic experience as possible. Paul Verhoeven’s Elle provides a prime example of this type of film, so if you want to go in with your guard down, stop reading now.
It’s been 25 years since Verhoeven unleashed Basic Instinct upon audiences. While a commercial success, grossing over $350,000,000 worldwide, that film received mixed reviews. A Hitchcock influenced thriller, Basic Instinct managed to be titillating and infuriating all at once. Elle takes the femme fatale elements of Basic Instinct and mixes it with French extremism. It is easily in my top 5 best films of 2016.
Isabella Huppert (Things to Come) gives a master class as Michele Leblanc, the CEO of a successful video game company. She’s a cold, affected member of the elite, the type of character Verhoeven tends to hold in unrelenting contempt.
As the film begins, Michelle has been brutally raped in her own home. She lays there for a short while after the perpetrator leaves. She gets up, cleans up the mess on the floor, and takes a bath. She spends the next several days trying to discover the identity of the rapist while preparing to defend herself in the event that he returns.
We feel empathy for her ideally as viewers. We also try and peel back the layers of what she must be experiencing. We see her at work instructing a male employee to increase the sexualized violence in one of the games. You can sense his hatred for her after she embarrasses him in front of his coworkers. This scene offers us a glimpse into her resolve as she compartmentalizes the assault only to deal with misogynist male employees. Not only is she a CEO, but she is a CEO in a notoriously male dominated field.
Michele’s detachment goes beyond her response to the assault. She seems aloof and detached in all areas of her life. The movie also contains elements of a dark comedy, which some viewers (and some critics) found distasteful to an extent. Rape as a trope in film is nothing new but few films focus on the PTSD aspects of the victim experiences later afterwards. Michele continues to trounce throughout her life without missing a beat.
There are few bright spots in Michele’s life as she has a tattered relationship with her son and his simpleminded girlfriend. Her mother spends her time paying for sex with much younger men. On the surface, it is difficult to conceive of how a woman who has experienced such a trauma is holding everything together.
I tend to gauge the effectiveness of a film by how long I deliberate about its merits. This film stuck with me long after the initial viewing. It rattled me as the layers were peeled back little by little. The backstory slowly washes over you and once it all comes together you sit there stunned. The extreme moments may turn some viewers off, but Elle is one of the more rewarding films I have come across recently.
Verhoeven has delivered a perfect viewing experience, and another stylish vehicle that toys with the audience over and over. It is as equally substantive as it stylish however, even more so. The French title of the film suggests that it will indeed revolve around the protagonist and the most satisfying part of the film is how Verhoeven slowly reveals the layers beneath Michele’s icy façade. While the opening scene might suggest otherwise, you will want to watch this film again.
As the recent wave of neo-feminism charges on, filmmakers will continue to deconstruct the femme fatale. Verhoeven has never failed to deliver when it comes to revealing the barbarism of the “weaker sex.” As Michele states, “…the girl who reads “The Second Sex”, will chew you up.” Isabelle Huppert has quite frankly given birth to a brave new world of man-eaters.