Elle review – revenge of an ice queen

Isabelle Huppert is astonishing as a rape victim who tracks down her assailant in Paul Verhoeven’s provocative psychodrama

You can read the provocative, strangely sardonic and icily arch psychodrama Elle in a number of contradictory ways. On one level, it’s a tonally alarming tale of sexual violence and dangerous roleplay from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the latter of which was cut by UK censors for potentially eroticising rape. On another, it’s a jaw-dropping showcase for Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert, cinema’s most fearless screen presence, who describes the film as a “human comedy” about “the empowerment of a woman” with a “post-feminist” heroine. If the definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time, then Elle is a movie designed to make its audience feel very smart indeed.

Adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…, Verhoeven’s first French-language feature opens with the ambiguous shrieks and grunts of a violent assault – a bloody violation, glimpsed in fragments, to which the film will return obsessively in variously reconfigured forms. The attack by a masked intruder is grotesque, but the aftermath is weirdly placid, as Huppert’s businesswoman Michèle tidies up, bathes and casually orders sushi. “I fell off my bike,” she tells her ineffectual son when asked about her injuries. Later, she informs colleagues: “It’s over, it’s not worth a debate.”

Running a company that makes lurid, sexualised video games (“the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid”), Michèle turns a profit exploring and exploiting the dark fantasies of her consumers. But when obscene texts and videos suggest that her assailant is a workmate, she refuses to go to the police, haunted by memories of her monstrous father’s arrest years ago (“never again”). Toughened by the past, and refusing to be defined as a “victim” (a label she was denied as a child), Michèle changes her locks, learns about guns, and coolly sets about tracking her assailant. But to what end?

Verhoeven originally wanted to shoot Djian’s Paris-set novel in Boston or Chicago, with Nicole Kidman in the lead. But when neither cast nor financing were forthcoming, David Birke’s English-language script was translated back into French by Harold Manning, and Huppert made the role of Michèle her own. “I cannot believe that anybody in the USA could have done this and gotten away with it,” Verhoeven told Sight & Sound. Certainly no one other than Huppert could have made such bizarrely playful sense of such inflammatory material. In Huppert’s hands, Michèle may be always crashing in the same car, but at least she’s in the driver’s seat.

Like the sadomasochistic heroine of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Michèle strives to orchestrate and control the narrative scenarios of her life and sexual identity. (“What role did she play?” asks a television documentary about her father’s crimes). In sharp contrast, the men around her are weak and enfeebled, from the husband of best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) whom Michèle jerks off into a wastepaper basket at work, to her son who is humiliatingly emasculated by his girlfriend, to her ex-husband, a struggling writer now pathetically dating a lithe, literate fan (“The bimbos with big tits never worried me, but the one who’s read The Second Sex will chew you up”).

Watch the trailer for Elle.

With cackling Buñuelian glee, Verhoeven unpicks these bourgeois lives (hilarious dinner parties from hell and feud-filled funerals abound) to which religious hypocrisy provides constant background noise. Stéphane Fontaine’s supple cinematography injects an uncharacteristic improvisational note, while the slithering strings and pulsing beats of Anne Dudley’s score amplify the voyeuristic nods to Rear Window. Yet Elle remains less a thriller than a (Bechdel test-passing) character study; a “mystery” in which the identity of the assailant is hardly hidden. No surprise that Verhoeven cites Renoir and Fellini, rather than Hitchcock or Chabrol, as his key influences.

“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything,” declares Michèle, a phrase that resonates as Verhoeven tackles a narrative that is “twisted … sick, diseased”. From The 4th Man to Black Book, the Dutch director has proved himself a multilingual agent provocateur, delighting in making audiences feel uncomfortable, daring them to be outraged. Yet despite a trio of male writers, it is Huppert’s Michèle who dominates Elle, her steely resolve and indomitable presence somehow making her the author (or perhaps auteur) of her own story.

On the film I remain conflicted, but of Huppert I am in awe. She may not have won the Oscar but, frankly, she deserves every trophy going.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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