Isabelle Huppert once again plays a hardened woman faced with unthinkable circumstances. At 63, her role in Paul Verhoeven’s chilling Elle demonstrates her complete confidence in herself. She plays Michèle LeBlanc, an esteemed businesswoman suddenly engaged in psychological warfare with a hungry rapist. But the repercussions are unprecedented, and Huppert convinces me once and for all that there is no mountain she cannot summit.
This role, in this film, can be played by no other actress. Hollywood stars would seek a desperation from within to try and balance the shock of rape with vindication. The effect would fall flat. Huppert is ideal because her Michèle is past all that. She transforms the character into a conflicted realist. Observe the almost routine way she deals with the aftermath of her assault. No panic. No overt anger. She sweetly disposes of the shattered kitchenware and neatens up. Hollywood Michèle would’ve laid on the floor weeping in self-pity till the movie decided to switch scenes.
But Michèle is not flippant. Rape has affected her deeply, only she’s not entirely sure what that means. And neither are we. The film seems to play fast and loose with expectations on how to deal with such trauma, but the characters in Elle are built from different stock. They don’t play the game the way we’d like them to.
I wouldn’t dream of revealing the identity of the attacker, but his presence is a powerful reminder that danger lives in plain sight. Both he and Michèle know the rules of their game – of which Michèle unwillingly becomes a participant – and plan their moves and countermoves like stoic grandmasters locked in a sudden-death showdown. Their resulting “relationship” might seem odd to some viewers, but it is the logical outcome for such confident opponents.
The movie is about sex, both consensual and forced, between friends and lovers, committed and adulterous, but not in the way you might think. This isn’t a vulgar film. Michèle’s life is surrounded by temptation; indeed, she seems to draw in every male around her simply by looking at them. What’s her play here? Huppert excels in exhibiting raw sexual energy almost on instinct. Michèle’s mistake is thinking she’s the only one in control.
All this is superbly handled by Verhoeven, who proved with RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) that bludgeoning violence is the new frontier. Elle is undoubtedly his most sensual film. Dark, weighty, ominous. There’s less violence and more dialogue. It uses peripheral characters and subplots to thicken the soup without altering the taste. It speaks about rape as an individual’s hardship, not as a mass idea open to widespread discussion. It affirms the notion that no response to rape can be uncomplicated. Michèle is strong and mature enough to understand what has happened to her. It is therefore her choice to proceed as she sees fit, except no one, not even herself, would’ve predicted what she’d do.