2016. Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Films are a complex gathering of essential ingredients, with each piece of the production working in concert to communicate a story and elicit an emotional response from the audience. Rarely, a film will come along where the central performance is so overwhelming, so relentlessly powerful, that the other elements at play vanish into the ether. Isabelle Huppert’s seminal performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is such an animal, the elusive white rhino that haunts the boundaries of the medium, conjured into existence by an emotionally resonant and devious embrace of the material. Using an uncharacteristic understanding of the pathos of victimization, Huppert delivers one of the most unforgettable performances in cinematic history before vanishing back into the void where the legends of film roam pathways of the soul.
Elle is a film that does not work without Huppert. Her notorious style of risqué abandon harmonizes with Verhoeven’s explosive style to weave a thunderous tapestry of woe and desire. Lesser talents require long scenes of exposition with quotable dialogue, to implant their personas within the viewer’s mind, a feat Huppert accomplishes with a mere glance of disdain. At its core, David Birke’s script is about power: Power in the workplace, in relationships, and in sexual encounters. Huppert’s Michele is a victim, enshrined in the armor of an intimidating, sexually empowered executive who has built an empire of illusions around her. The revelry is shattered when she is brutally raped and in the aftermath, casually goes back to her ruined kingdom, refusing to make the incident anything more than an apparent inconvenience, despite the concern from her friends and lovers.
Verhoeven flirts with ideas of a victim’s revenge, but this is merely the surface of Elle’s harrowing intent. As Michele attempts to bolster her surroundings, she understands her powerlessness, using the perceived weakness of her situation to an advantage, finding an advantage where none should exist. This is a dark story that is definitely not for the casual viewer. Aside from the disturbing depth of the story, there are brutal sequences of sexual violence along all of Verhoeven’s hallmarks. His film is about a woman who finds strength in her victimization and chooses to embrace it, finding pleasure in the freedom of the idea of losing the basest notions of control, but yet never actually surrendering.
Stephane Fontaine’s suffocating cinematography keeps everything at the ground level. Every look and each transgression of the flesh are on full display, peeling back the falsities to reveal the casual awfulness of everyday people which, when contrasted against the sexual deviancy at the center, appears almost worse. This is the sheer brilliance of Elle. Verhoeven sprinkles comic relief in the darkest corners of the narrative while flatly refusing to shy away from the discomfort. Just when you think you’ve exhausted your tolerance and understanding of Michele’s plight she delves further into the darkness and you willingly take her icy hand, eager not only to explore the basement of the soul but ultimately, to decide where Michele’s limits end and yours begin.
Verhoeven is notorious for violent exploitation with charm and Elle is the crown jewel in his gory pantheon of excess. Every interaction is a negotiation and every scene of lust is a whispered rumor of scandal, overseen by a brooding and accusatory score by Anne Dudley. Perhaps the best surprise of this sexual parable is that in the end, both the viewer and Michele find hope in her predicament, a wry admission that things that break us also strengthen and define us, a point that could only be made by Huppert’s flawless, tour de force performance.
Available now for digital rental, Elle is one of the best films of 2016. Huppert received an Academy Award nomination for her performance, which given her fabled career is perhaps Elle’s greatest trick. If you’re willing to explore a pitch black world of desire and control, in which the only escape is through self-acceptance via personal empowerment, Elle is an essential experience.
Highly. Highly Recommend.