Paul Verhoeven is responsible for some of the finest science fiction movies of the last thirty years, and although he conquered Hollywood in the 90s, it’s easy to forget that he is also the man responsible for Basic Instinct and Showgirls. As the credits open on Elle and the wannabe Bernard Hermann soundtrack screeches all over it, those memories come flooding back.
The movie opens with a confronting rape sequence as Michelle (Isabelle Huppert) is attacked during a home invasion. Following the attack, she decides not to report the incident to the police. She has a history of bad experiences with law enforcement and cannot bring herself to contact them, even in such extreme circumstances. Michelle decides to just carry on with her chaotic life. She runs a successful video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), has a lazy son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), and deals with an embarrassing mother (Judith Magre), oh and she’s the daughter of an incarcerated serial murderer. All the while, she is being stalked by her attacker. When she finally learns the identity of her assailant, the motivation for her actions is left deliberately ambiguous. The movie becomes extremely problematic when the plot not only comes full circle, it suggests a consensual element to a revisited crime.
The film itself is strange. Stylistically and musically it feels like a Hollywood psychological thriller, in the vein of Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct (and lest we forget, Verhoeven set the bar – albeit a very low one – for the pointless erotic thriller genre with the latter). However, the plot more than tests the limits of believability.
At times Elle feels like two scripts mashed together. On the one hand a sombre rape revenge film, and on the other a dryly-amusing comedy drama, as Michelle struggles with the two different generations of her family. In fact, for a large portion of the first half, the rape is relegated to almost a sub plot, and we get some interesting character interactions with a lot of genuinely enjoyable witty and snappy dialogue. But Verhoeven can’t really balance the tone and as a result certain scenes seem to have been inserted from a completely different movie.
Michelle and Anna’s video game company is creating a violent game, which we could assume is Verhoeven making some kind of correlation between game content and Michelle’s reality. However, it doesn’t really serve the story to any great degree, other than pointing a rather clunky finger of suspicion at Michelle’s employees. It feels like lazy stereotyping of the gaming medium more than anything else, using the weathered old cliché of targeting mindlessly violent video games.
It’s hugely disappointing that such an unsavoury movie should come from the same man responsible for Robocop, Starship Troopers and Total Recall – three sci-fi masterpieces that allowed you to have your cake and eat it. At face value they were fantastically enjoyable genre pictures, but each had a lot more going on underneath, from social satire to religious commentary. Verhoeven’s recent renouncing of science fiction, post-Cannes, further compounds the disappointment. Elle offers only pointless controversy.
In most respects, Michelle is a very strong female character, exemplified by her holding her own business and controlling most aspects of her life. It can’t be denied that Huppert is great in the role, bringing shades of grey to the character so she is not always likeable, but always real. But the movie is most troubling when dealing with the sexual assault, and Michelle’s reaction to it. It is true that she refuses to see herself as a victim, but her reluctance to acknowledge the assault on any level, other than arming herself with pepper spray and a hatchet, speaks far more of denial than strength of character.
And where do we even begin with the disturbing ambiguity to Michelle’s actions in the latter half of the film? Ambiguity, it seems, is a convenient place to hide when someone calls foul. With such a sobering subject matter, it’s an utter cop-out to court such controversy and then retreat into fence sitting.
What is Verhoeven trying to say here? That sexual violence should not be reported? That secretly a woman might enjoy it? That rape is sex? If you pose those questions to an audience without answering them, could it be a tacit ‘yes’ to them all?
As a thriller, the film is laboured and predictable, left more successful when channelling a comedic alter ego. As a vehicle for stirring up controversy, it certainly hits its target, but when you get right down to it, Elle is a bad film with a rotten message.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10