Huppert Stands Tall in Verhoeven's Sardonic, Challenging 'Elle'

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven; Runtime: 130 minutes
Grade: B-

The terms "comedy" and "rape" should probably stay as far away from one another as possible, since it's hard to imagine how anyone could transform such sensitive material into anything even in the ballpark of humorous. Paul Verhoeven comes about as close to legitimately doing so as one can get with Elle -- though, as the director himself has been on record stating and as one discovers while watching the film, this "is not a rape comedy". Elevated tonality, a faint satirical edge, and direct exploration and manipulation of the subject matter brushes against what could be deciphered as humor surrounding the topic, but this is, at its core, more akin to a pitch-black psychological thriller in the vein of Black Book or Basic Instinct than one of Verhoeven's more overt satires. A commanding and challenging performance from Isabelle Huppert shines amid over two hours of perplexing, warped suspense centered on a woman's coping process following an attack, producing an intriguing yet overdrawn exercise that's burdened by how it pulls the curtains back on its mysteries too soon.

Adapting from Philipe Dijan's prize-winning novel, Elle begins by depicting a violent attack upon Michele (Huppert), whose surprisingly nonchalant response to being violated by a masked intruder sets off some alarm bells about the kind of person she is. Turns out, she has a complicated history: once the underage and manipulated accomplice in a disturbing act of murder committed by her father, she has paved a career path for herself as a creative executive in the videogame industry. Michele begins to wonder whether someone involved with her latest project -- gaming aficionados will recognize the character models and gameplay of the recent release Styx: Master of Shadows as the game she's working on -- might have been responsible for the action. Amid her demanding relationship with her critical mother, her dwindling affair with a co-worker, and her burgeoning attraction to a next-door neighbor, Michele decides to pursue her attacker by herself and, perhaps, exact vengeance if she's able to locate him.

No stranger to shock value, Verhoeven leaves a lasting mark right at the beginning of Elle with the volatile rape sequence. Obviously, this event impacts the mood and context of everything else that follows, in how Michele interacts with family and friends and how she approaches her life afterwards, but it's not in the conventional ways you'd probably imagine. Michele's handling of the situation interweaves with her development of violent and vulgar cutscenes in a videogame, with mundane activities like dealing with her home association's trash separation demands and with meals where she joined by her ex-husband and her mother, all the while focused upon whether she divulges the information of her assault. Even anticipated sequences where she builds a self-protection arsenal are given a unique spin with Michele's sardonic, direct yet calculated responses. This is where the charges of Elle being a kind of comedy originate, in how brazenly Verhoeven accelerates into these scenes with his avant-garde evasion of political correctness, while also shining a light on the situation's gravity.

Isabelle Huppert's performance remains critical to the success of Elle from start to finish, and the credible, unswerving poise she gives to Michele elevates everything that happens in the thriller. The actress is no stranger to trailblazing roles like this: she's delved into the psycho-sexual challenges of sadomasochism and repression in Michael Haneke's abrasive The Piano Teacher, and coped with navigating domineering social issues and moral grayness in White Material, among others. Here, the amplified cynicism of how Michele navigates her life post-attack stays within the lines of integrity because of Huppert, else the events that transpire and the ways that relationships evolve -- especially whenever her son's bond with his twisted pregnant girlfriend enters the equation -- could've easily stumbled into the realm of sheer, exploitative pulp. Huppert's shrewd glances and stalwart poise allow the film to continue grasping onto the more perceptive merits of its design, yielding a powerful manifestation of composure and empowerment as she sparks her independent investigation.

Problem is, all the other things going on around Michele combine this extended study of her trauma with melodramatic diversions and a meandering development of suspects for her assault, which Verhoeven has drawn out over the two-hour mark. Ruminations on the deceased, fading and emerging extramarital affairs, and baby-daddy issues involving her son evolve into a complicated, yet jumbled dramatic epic that lacks the resonance (or sense of humor) to endure that amount of time. The world might keep spinning after Michele's attack, and that's a worthwhile message, but the density of other issues surrounding her -- her history with a murderous father, her mother's taste for younger men, and her own inclination toward married men -- has too much going on for it to hold focus on its deeper considerations about what Michele's going through. There's a commentary involved here about the dynamics of people who don't report being assaulted and the post-traumatic psychological stress that can result from this, as well as deriving strength from the situation, but it gets lost in the clutter of Michele's already screwed-up life.

Elle already stumbles as a thriller because of its exaggerated distractions, but its biggest trip comes in how soon the identity of Michele's attacker gets revealed, which subdues much of the momentum. While the film has been touted as having potential revenge overtones, there's little that suggests what she'll actually do if her independent investigation ever produced a suspect … which ends up being by design, for the sake of suspense and shock value delivered by Verhoeven. The execution of the gap between the identity reveal and the culmination of Michele's plan leaves something to be desired, though: despite taking her psychological turmoil to some dark thematic places, the moving parts struggle to line up in a plausible fashion, leaning too far over into Verhoeven's style of exploitation for the gravity of the subject matter he's dabbling in. It's hard not to stay intrigued with seeing where Elle -- and its complex heroine -- will ultimately end up, but the director's adaptation of Djain's novel doesn't make it an easy affair, even with touches of absurdity and sarcasm in there trying to amplify the mood.

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