MIFF Review: Elle (France, 2016) is sensationally subversive

Elle, the latest from Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, is sensationally subversive. Part unnerving psychosexual thriller, part searing familial comedy, the film commences disturbingly with the sounds of the violent rape of the film’s protagonist, Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), in her Parisian home.

We do not witness the crime, only the immediate aftermath: masked assailant having fled the scene, Michèle ever-so-matter-of-factly uses a dustpan and brush to sweep up homewares broken in the attack, then draws herself a bath. She does not contact the police; she does not reveal the attack to anyone, in fact, until some days later. Even when it becomes apparent that her attacker is both someone close to her and a continued threat, Michèle remains staunchly independent. She chooses to equip herself with the means for self-protection rather than rely on others, and await an opportunity to confront her attacker.

The character of Michèle LeBlanc represents a striking rupture with the reductive portrayals of sexual assault victims that tend to grace our screens. Michèle is a victim of the rape, certainly, but she is not defined by that role or that experience. Professionally, she is a successful businesswoman, managing a predominantly male workforce at a successful video game production company that she co-founded with her close friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). In her personal life, she is a reluctantly indulgent mother to her feckless son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), a judgemental daughter to her own mother, Irène (Judith Magre), and an opportunistic accomplice in potentially destructive adultery. Perhaps most shockingly, with a vicious tongue and a level of self-absorption that borders on the narcissistic, Michèle is not necessarily even that likeable. But she is a captivating personality: intelligent, playfully manipulative, seductive.

Verhoeven establishes the basis for an affecting thriller, but never allows the rhythm of the film (or its audience) to settle entirely into that groove. Seeming diversions have a habit of presenting themselves, whether it be in the form of Michèle’s handsome married neighbour across the street, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), or Vincent’s torrid relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Josie (Alice Isaaz). A delicate symbiosis is thus achieved between the comic and the suspenseful, leaving the viewer suspecting that everything in the world of Elle is a little off-kilter – a suspicion that is realised in the film’s startling and unsettling third act. Through the infusion of melodramatic tropes – a blood red dress here, a black cat there – Verhoeven intensifies this sense of the hyperreal. A marvellous score from Anne Dudley and elegant cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine enhance the movie-going experience generally.

But above all else, Elle distinguishes itself as a result of the sublime turn from Isabelle Huppert. Her performance is spellbinding – her capacity to express emotion with a subtle change of visage remarkable. Huppert revels in the complexity of the role, inhabiting Michèle and breathing life into one of the more morally ambiguous cinematic characters of recent times. As the film’s title betrays, Elle is all about Michèle. By extension, it is all about Huppert.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Elle screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, where it was reviewed.

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