LFF 2016 – Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

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Fairly convinced Paul Verhoeven is engaged in the process of shaping his own CV so each film is part of a matching pair. Basic Instinct (1992) is a glossy Hollywood version of The Fourth Man (1983), Black Book a female tale of heroism to go with his earlier WWII epic Soldier of Orange, while Showgirls (1995) essentially tells the same story as his period drama Katie Tippel (1975), with a young woman trying to make her way in a workplace where men hold all the power and frequently abuse it. Now with Elle he reworks medieval action movie Flesh + Blood (1985) into a film that manages to be both a revenge thriller and a French comedy of manners.

Like Flesh + Blood it concerns a rape victim shifting the balance of power against her attacker by beginning a relationship with him. Video games CEO Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally assaulted in her own home by a masked intruder. Rather than reporting the incident to the police she clears up the damage to her home and washes away the physical evidence by bathing. Though Elle may seem like Verhoeven is being deliberately provocative it’s his most restrained film to date, a character study of somebody who has already suffered a horrendous trauma (the matter-of-fact way Huppert reveals this is shocking and hilarious) and is capable of dealing with grief.

Michele refuses to be a victim and indeed proves stronger than those around her, most of whom are reliant on her for money or seek to use her as an emotional crutch. It wouldn’t have worked so well without Huppert who can play characters who refuse outright to ask the audience for sympathy (see also White Material). Maybe Adjani could have matched her but I’m not sure. It’s a complex and ambiguous film and I’m not sure I’ve got a handle on it after one Film Festival screening.

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