Director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle doesn’t sound like a comedy: the central event of the film is a rape—a bloody, violent one at that. In fact, it’s the very first scene. Strangely, the opening credits warn us that what we are seeing is “a French comedy.” Really? I guess that explains it!
Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her dining room by a man in a ski mask while her green-eyed cat watches, detached and seemingly bored. China is smashed, furniture is toppled, blood is shed. After he leaves, Michèle cleans up the mess and resumes her life, ordering sushi delivery—a “holiday roll,” no less.
As the film proceeds, we learn a lot about Michèle. She’s the daughter of a famous mass murderer approaching parole. She’s a ballbusting owner of a video game company. Her staff, entirely young and male, either wants to sleep with her or murder her. Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is totally whipped by a shrew (Alice Isaaz) who’s pregnant with a baby that clearly isn’t his. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is involved with a younger yoga instructor (Vimala Pons). Her mother (Judith Magre) is a high maintenance piece of work who carries on with men a third her age. Meanwhile, Michèle is having an affair with with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her business partner (Anne Consigny).
Things get dicey when Michèle develops a thing for her neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a handsome banker married to a devout Catholic (Virginie Efira) who apparently won’t fuck him. Their flirtation messes with her head as she tries to figure out who raped her. She’s surrounded by men, and every one of them is suspect.
David Birke’s screen adaption of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… is, in a word, warped. Elle plays with power, desire, sex, and of all things sympathy. Consistent with its character—a constant switcheroo you don’t know whether to trust or look away from—it’s not a sad affair. To the contrary, it’s daring, thrilling, irreverent, and totally fun. It shouldn’t work—I found myself questioning whether I should enjoy the film as much as I did—but it does. The execution of both the plot and the characters is clever—and Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, which nicely illustrates the psychological drama here, is flawless. If nothing else, Elle is a visually stunning film.
Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” plays at various points in Elle, suggesting a lot of contradictory things. I took it as ironic more than anything. Elle is not for everyone, but it’s a powerful statement for those who can handle it—the perfect film for Valentine’s Day.
With Lucas Prisor, Raphaël Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Hugo Conzelmann
Production: SBS Productions, Pallas Film, France 2 Cinéma, Entre Chien et Loup, Canal+, France Télévisions, Orange Cinéma Séries, Casa Kafka Pictures, Proximus, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Filmförderungsanstalt
Distribution: SBS Distribution
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+