Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), starring Isabelle Huppert, was presented at the Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d’Or and was one of the most talked about movies of the season. Previously known for directing 1990’s Sci-Fi movies like Total Recall (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, and the cult erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992), Verhoeven seems to have combined art house risqué with American thriller motifs in Elle, his first French language film.
Elle tells the tale of powerful mature businesswoman, Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) who leads the successful video game company she founded. As a typical narcissist, Michèle is a fearless, seductive, control freak who ‘wears the pants’ in all her relationships. Like a modern Queen Bee, she enjoys exerting power over her young male subordinates, her needy, approval-seeking business partner and friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), Anna’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), her employee and lover, her penniless writer ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her eccentric elderly mother Irène (Judith Magre) and her unstable son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) – all of whom stand in awe of her, while depending on her both emotionally and financially. Michèle seems to have everything and everyone under control until one day she is brutally beaten and raped by an unknown masked intruder in her luxurious suburban house.
The film unfolds just like the adult video game that Michèle’s team is developing, in which the player impersonates a monster attacking a young woman, with its share of strategy, chase, threat, fight, survival, crude sex, victory, loss and merciless violence. The rape scene seems to be ‘paused’ and ‘replayed’ several times at different intervals in the film like a session being ‘resumed’ or played from different viewpoints, switching from first-person to third-person perspective.
The video game in the film seems to ‘come to life’ when Michèle starts to hunt down her attacker. They play a cat and mouse game as she attempts to seduce him and regain control of the situation, as if the female 3D model being chased by the monster had suddenly started fighting back.
Mixing horror and irony, (like the ominous basement scene, or Rebecca (Virginie Efira) and Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) the neighbours that are too good to be true), the film subverts machismo, as the typical buddy plot with a dominant male and numerous dispensable females is reversed. As a woman with male pretences, Michèle cherishes her freedom but doesn’t tolerate even the slightest resistance from those around her (like when her ego clashes with Kurt’s (Lucas Prisor) or when she interferes with her ex-husband’s relationship with a much younger student), she enjoys having fun but disposes of men when they become too dependent as relationships seem to bore her, and brags about her superiority, while making the male characters around her ‘drop their pants’ both metaphorically and literally on numerous occasions.
Her shameless display of strength, risk-taking nature, and refusal to conform to the passive, nurturing and insecure female stereotype, paired with her large empty house with loose locks and shutters that are always left open, is an irresistible provocation to the psychopath who invades her home wearing a mask like Batman’s evil twin.
Michèle’s strategy to survive this experience is to repeatedly provoke her attacker while pushing his limits, thus refusing to be victimized. Indeed, Michèle is used to confronting monsters. As the daughter and murder witness of a convicted serial killer, she possibly feels subconsciously guilty towards her father’s victims and punishes herself, while trying to make amends and find peace.
All in all, Elle is an erotic thriller and rape revenge movie with cynical undertones and a remarkable performance by Isabelle Huppert who is well-known for portraying strong, female characters whose life is suddenly disrupted when they get involved in an unhealthy relationship with a younger, usually unscrupulous man (like Michael Hanneke’s famous film The Piano Teacher, 2001 or Catherine Breillat’s Abus de faiblesse, 2013).