Friday 6 July 2018

Movie Review: Elle (2016)

A drama about rape and relationships past and present intertwined in a grotesque embrace, Elle features an intriguing central character and a hypnotic Isabelle Huppert performance.

In France, middle-aged Michèle (Huppert) is raped in her home by a masked assailant. She shakes off the attack, does not report it, and carries on while paying special attention to the men in her life.When she was a 10 year old girl, Michèle became infamous as the daughter of a mass murderer, who is now imprisoned for life but with an upcoming parole hearing. Now she deeply resents her mother Irène, who lives a carefree life and seeks sexual gratification with younger men.

Michèle co-runs a gaming software company with her friend Anna and is carrying on a passionless sexual affair with Anna's smug husband Robert. She has a troubled relationship with her son Vincent and his pregnant girlfriend Josie. She remains in touch with her ex-husband Richard, a once-famous writer, and also flirts with her married neighbour Patrick. When the rapist attempts to strike again, Michèle is more ready to fight back, and welcomes an unexpected new chapter in her life.

An adaptation of the book Oh... by Philippe Djian and directed by Paul Verhoeven, Elle thrives off the mysterious energy of its central character. Although full of violence, manipulation and repressed anger, the film is essentially a single character study, and while Michèle is surrounded by a large group of friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, they are all here to serve her story. Verhoeven places his trust in his lead character and star actress to carry the film, and Elle delivers a mostly compelling drama.

Michèle's composed reaction to being raped in her own living room is initially remarkable, and ignites revelations about her background introduced by Verhoeven in tantalizing morsels and at a relaxed pace. Michèle can shrug off the rape because she has experienced something much worse and deployed all her emotional defences, and a result has a cold and calculating attitude towards herself and others, including her closest family members.

With the rape just another example of the brutality men are capable of, Michèle goes about methodically investigating the who and the why, not necessarily for any plotted revenge reasons but to better understand the beast that ruined her since childhood. The film links sexuality, religion, psychological dominance and violence, and Michèle charts her course carefully through examples past and present of these forces continuously colliding.

The sub-plots swirling around the central character are plentiful but short-changed. The preponderance of inter-linked characters may work well in book form and to enhance the perpetrator mystery, but on-screen the supporting cast remain flat and superficial. The quantity over quality contributes to a less than satisfying final third as Verhoeven rushes to find pat conclusions for everyone, with some sudden, highly unconvincing resolutions scattered into every corner.

But Elle is never less than watchable thanks to a superlative Isabelle Huppert performance. Finding the unlikely reaction to every provocation and conveying a rage against life's monstrous injustices through icy coldness, Huppert catapults Michèle above all atrocities, on her own terms.

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