TIFF Review: 'Elle'

(France, 131 min.)
Dir. Paul Verhoeven, Writ. David Burke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling
Courtesy of TIFF
Elle might be the ickiest parable on rape culture ever made.  It's also one of the best, provided one has the stomach to endure it. This masterful film from Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) is definitely of the love-it-or-hate variety, but it's worth enduring and considering long after one recovers from the director's cinematic violation. An award- calibre performance from Isabelle Huppert anchors the unnerving Elle with 131-minutes of uncomfortable fearlnessness as she puts audiences in the mind of a victim and perpetrator alike. The ballsiness of this performance is astounding.

Elle rejects trigger warnings and hits audiences by surprise. The film knocks audiences back in their seats from the opening scene as Huppert's Michele survives a brutal rape in her home after a prowler forces himself through her doors. Elle at first seems artfully tasteful as Verhoeven fixes the camera on Michele’s cat Marty as he watches the violent action. The sounds of Marty’s owner screaming and thrashing offscreen speak to horror that Michele endures. Elle doesn't skirt the subject, though, as the film cuts to Michele splayed on the floor beneath her attacker. She puts up one hell of a fight, but her assailant ultimately overtakes her as Verhoeven stages graphic sexual violence that will have some viewers fleeing their seats. The scene is brief yet arduously long as Verhoeven ensures that the viewer, like Michele, begins the story by being utterly violated.

What comes after, though, is equally unsettling. Michele’s reaction to the rape is hard to read. There’s almost no reaction, really, as she merely sweeps up the shards of her lunch left by the fight with her masked assailant. Then it’s a bath and business as usual at the company where she produces video games. An early sign of trauma comes in a team meeting as she berates one of her male game designers that his violent design isn’t wild enough. The game, which is some twisted medieval shit, lets the presumably male players rape a female character with ejaculatory fury. For Michele, however, the assault isn’t orgasmic enough. Her advice is to make the victim scream with pleasure. Show it in her face, she suggests.

Michele’s advice isn’t easy to accept so shortly after witnessing the violence she survives. The script by David Burke challenges Michele and her potential complicity in the circumstances that precipitate her assault. How a victim can endure such hell and then demand violent images that could potentially encourage male players get off on sexual violence is unfathomable, but Elle lives in a world in which rape culture is a complex and unescapable disease.

As Michele struggles in the aftermath of her attack, she relives her experience and Verhoeven subjects the audience to the violent image of Michele’s violation again and again. The sight changes, though, with Michele overtaking her attacker and relishes the sight of his warm blood spurting all over her wood floor. The dream of a happy ending ripples across Huppert’s enigmatic face as Michele gradually reveals herself much darker than she initially appeared.

The hunted becomes the hunter as Michele imagines the pleasure of making her rapist pay. Elle builds the most complex and fascinating character of the year as Burke provides a deadly backstory to Michele as elements of her past arise throughout the aftermath of the assault. Michele, it turns out, may be a bit of a psychopath as her father sits in prison for the rest of his life as punishment for murdering all the kids on their street during her childhood. Michele, furthermore, may have been an accomplice at the tender age of nine.

Huppert captivates the screen with glacial stares that invite a wealth of interpretations. Whether Michele is sick and twisted or simply detached is debatable, and one must truly relish the ferociousness of Huppert’s performance. The subtle sexual heat that ripples across Huppert’s glacial face offers an ick factor on par with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. Michele the man-eater is a disturbed woman as she inflicts pain for pleasure by damaging relationships and humiliating peers just for thrills.

The film challenges one’s perception of Michele and the trauma she endures by framing and reframing her actions within the mitigating and aggravating circumstances of her ordeal. Elle puts the audience in the position of blaming the victim as one questions Elle’s behaviour. She lures would-be attackers into her home like a spider nabbing its prey, but the petite woman is no match for the prospective attackers and she finds herself violated again. One can’t say that Michele deserves what comes to her though, for no matter how lecherous her motives, the actions of the entitled men in the film are considerably worse because they willingly violate her body. She just fucks with their minds.

Charges of misogyny are inevitable as Verhoeven puts Michele in brutal circumstances and makes her squirm, but decrying the film is to miss the complexity of the action it represents. Elle turns the tables on the audience and makes one realise just how awful it is to put even a fraction of the onus on the victim. Huppert’s brave performance, furthermore, challenges any clear conception of just who exactly the victim is in this affair as her icily blank stare flickers with the perverse thrill of a hunter, like a cat deliciously toying with a mouse for thrills. It’s a twisted performance that makes one’s skin crawl. Elle is the wildest punch in the face at the movies this year. Bravo!

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
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