The opening scene of Elle acts as a warning – letting the viewer know that they’re boarding Paul Verhoeven’s thrilling train, bravely traveling through the murk towards an unknown territory of the surreal and twisted.
After being raped in her own home, Michéle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) decides against reporting the crime, and instead opts in favour of searching for the masked culprit herself. From the get-go, her guard doesn’t drop, and we watch as she’s shoved into a world where every man, be it a friend or stranger, has the potential to be the person who committed the attack. It’s this catalyst that sparks the tension that clings on through the entirety of the film – creeping, hand in hand, with the dark, looming cloud of suspense that lingers above every scene like smog. Elle keeps you on the edge of your seat even when you don’t want to be – and it does this through letting the story simply play out. It doesn’t rely on jump scares to instil fear in the viewer’s mind, like many of the average and boring horror/thriller films of today – bar a few exceptions. Instead, what the film does is plant an idea in your head – in this case, the idea being that the attacker is going to come back, but neither Michéle nor the viewer knows when or how it will happen. In my opinion, this is the most effective device that a horror or thriller film can use – and in this sense, Elle is akin to many of the other great films that have utilised this idea perfectly, from classics like “The Shining” or “The Silence of the Lambs”, to more recent films like “The Babadook” or “It Follows”. Make no mistake, this isn’t solely a product of well thought out directing – there’s something just as important needed in order to create an atmosphere that is equal parts haunting and immersive. The performance.
I’ve read a lot online recently about Isabelle Huppert’s performance – some of which saying it’s her best yet. But I feel I have to be completely honest and say, I have never seen a film of hers before and as a result, have nothing to compare it to. That being said, Huppert’s performance is outstanding. She perfectly encapsulates the fear that a person would feel having experienced something so traumatising – but even with the serious nature of the subject matter and the equally serious tone that can be felt for most of the runtime, Huppert brushes through the dark humour and sarcasm of her character with ease. As the film progresses it becomes abundantly clear that Michéle will not be considered a victim – she is a fighter who stares into the eyes of those who threaten her, and with a thirst for justice and revenge, sternly and strongly refuses to concede. Being such a big part of the character, it was important that her resilient attitude was portrayed in a way that’s enjoyable to see onscreen without overshadowing the power of the film’s underlying message – and this is something she did perfectly. To me, her performance is as near to flawless as you can get.
Of course, the rape stands at the forefront, and rightfully so given the importance of the story – however, there is so much more to see. Elle is rife with subplot and supporting characters that weave together effortlessly, transforming Michéle into something that’s much more than fiction on a screen. And through a combination of the excellent writing and believable acting across the board, the film excels in creating a level of immersion that many others would struggle to rival. The world inhabited by the characters is one where the negative and wrong are the usual, but that’s hardly surprising considering the events that unfold are seen through the eyes of someone who grew up tainted by the actions that filled her dysfunctional youth.
If, like me, you have a taste for grit, something that will make you wince, lean forward with uneasy anticipation, and laugh all the while – Elle is the film for you. It is brave cinema at it’s finest. Paul Verhoeven has mastered the act of walking the tightrope between the serious and the funny, pulling no punches in delivering a piece of art that is just as important as it is entertaining. Give it a chance.
Review by Chris Flay
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