Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Country: France / Germany / Belgium
In glory, Paul Verhoeven returns to film direction with “Elle”, a French-Belgian-German psychological drama of great intensity, featuring Isabelle Huppert at her best.
The Dutch filmmaker, who gave us the relevant “Soldier of Orange” and celebrated Hollywood pics such as “Robocop” and “Basic Instinct”, had his career’s peak in the late 80’s and beginning of 90’s, but can’t be considered prolific. From 2000 on, he directed only four films, which abruptly oscillates in quality. “Hollow Man” and “Tricked” were too flimsy to deserve a recommendation. Yet, “Black Book” and “Elle” lit the fire of hope in the hearts of his fans, especially the latter, which marks a radical change in style, vision, and posture.
Verhoeven directed from a script by David Baker, who in turn, based himself on the Interallié Prize novel “Oh...” by Philippe Djian.
The film opens bluntly with a violent rape. The man is dressed in black and has his face covered with a baklava. The woman is Michéle Leblanc (Huppert), a successful video-game entrepreneur who was able to rebuild her life respectfully over the years, apparently recovering from the trauma of being associated with 27 evil slays perpetrated by her psychopath father.
Her life may look much tranquil now, but Michéle keeps struggling with life, the ones around her - including family and people at work, and her own inner demons. Is it some sort of karma?
She has a very cold relationship with her mother (Judith Magre) who wants to marry a younger opportunistic man (Raphaël Lenglet). Her immature son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is moving to a new apartment with his pregnant girlfriend and needs money. Despite separated from Richard (Charles Berling), a struggling writer and Vincent’s father, she gets jealous when he starts a relationship with a younger student. At work, very few employees like her and she’s subjected to an offensive prank. To make all this harder, she’s sleeping with Robert (Christian Berkel), the cynical husband of her best friend and co-partner (Anne Consigny) in the company.
And now she gets raped! Terrified, she takes the proper measures to defend herself. Still, she refuses to go to the police regardless the threatening anonymous messages she constantly gets from the man who spanked her and forced her to the act. Michéle, a cerebral survivor who boasts a shocking frankness, no matter the situation, firstly opts to ignore the case, but that can’t continue any longer for several reasons.
Besides professional success, the only positive aspect of her life is Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a married neighbor whom she has a crush on and signals proximity.
With so many ambiguities and complexity, will Michéle be able to cleanse her complicated world?
Michéle’s existence is so rich in details that one may feel overwhelmed. This happens because those same details are far from being constructive or hopeful. The emotional weight she carries arises sympathy. It’s a burdened life that Huppert depicts flawlessly. She couldn’t have been a better choice. She was nearly as perfect as she was in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”.
Verhoeven, always inclined to dark twists, has to be congratulated for the cinematic version of this compelling character study and encouraged to follow his career with works of this caliber. Hollywood for what?