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Cannes Review: Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ is a Lighthearted Rape-Revenge Story

Cannes Review: Paul Verhoeven's 'Elle' is a Lighthearted Rape-Revenge Story

Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” begins with a laugh that catches in your throat: A wide-eyed cat looks off-screen to the screams of a man and woman in apparent orgiastic bliss. Then comes the cutaway, which reveals a far more nefarious incident: Middle-aged Michéle (Isabelle Huppert), in the process of getting raped by a masked assailant on the floor of her home. Once he dashes out the door, Michéle simply lies there, gazing up at the ceiling, and it’s not clear if she’s traumatized or intrigued.

So goes the rest of the movie, a typically subversive twist on a familiar family drama from a master of turning genres inside out. For his first French-language production — and his first feature-length film in a decade — the 77-year-old filmmaker has delivered his most contained work in years, a dark comedy about sexual urges and other passions closer in form to 1973’s “Turkish Delight” than anything he’s made since.

Faced with the challenge of carrying a lighthearted comedy about rape, Huppert imbues Michéle with terrific ambiguity. A workaholic game designer whose serial killer father has been locked up for years, she spends her days barking at staffers, engaging in an affair with Patrick (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend (Anne Consigny) and barking at her young adult son (Jonas Bloquet), who’s stuck in a dead-end marriage and can’t seem to get his life back on track. Michéle’s biggest hurdle comes from her demanding mother (Judith Magre), a diva spending her days sleeping with a much younger man and fretting over her killer husband’s request for an appeal.

With all these neurotic elements in play, Michéle lies at the center of a world filled with clashing egos and smarmy asides. Adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel, the script — co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke — puts as much emphasis on the workaholic character’s ferocious personality as the impact of the terrible invasion she experiences at the beginning. Rather than sounding the alarm, she initially keeps the incident to herself, hinting at the unsettling possibility that the horrific moment somehow injected fresh energy into her life.

Verhoeven slowly reveals the physical impact of the rape on Michéle, foregrounding her initial attempts to block it out. Sitting a bubble bath, she suddenly notices a pool of blood gathering around her; at night, she sleeps with a hammer. But later, once she’s spent more time bouncing between the various high-strung people in her hectic world, she’s imagining a fantasy in which the event played out quite differently — and when the apparent assailant begins texting her and invading her home when she’s away, “Elle” gives its protagonist the chance to envision a form of revenge. She ultimately gets it — but not in the way one might expect.

Constantly poking at the whiny problems of upper-class French society, Verhoeven takes a page from Michael Haneke’s playbook, with cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s brightly-lit interiors accentuating the yawning interiors of the palatial homes where most of the action takes place. From her bored liaison with Patrick to the grief she heaps on to her son, Michéle’s life is a series of unsatisfying circumstances. The twisted mystery of her new admirer provides her with an unexpected source of escape.

“Elle” doesn’t always maintain the clever balance of naughtiness and dramatic confrontations that make it such an appealingly unconventional romp. Its obnoxious ensemble grows weary and redundant with time. The conflicts between these self-involved people often feels undercooked. Fortunately, Huppert’s fierce turn and focused gaze remains at the center of the beguiling story, which offers more than one fascinating twist. Ninety minutes in, the rapist’s identity is revealed, which gives Verhoeven another 40 minutes to let Michéle figure out what she wants to do about it. The final act is the intellectual’s answer to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an ambitious statement about the ability to heal psychological wounds with violent sex.

For Verhoeven, a return to this terrain shows the extent to which his career has followed whatever direction allows the best outlet for his vulgar inquisitiveness. Whether it’s the anti-imperialist bent of “Starship Troopers,” the Nazi love story “Black Book,” or the warped feminist stance found here, Verhoeven rarely fails at taking some modicum of familiar material and transforming it into a shrewder treatise on the boundaries of political correctness. In the case of “Elle,” Verhoeven has crafted a defiant tale about the ultimate antidote for fear lying in the ability to turn it into something else.

Grade: B+

“Elle” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It opens later this year.

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Comments

Antico R.

There’s nothing lighthearted about rape. You and other dudes want to pretend this grotesque sounding film is some thrilling take on an event that is traumatizing and thrill that it is provocative that is your prerogative. The title should go.

Lily

I don’t think this is an appropriate headline, guys…

adele

It is Isabelle Huppert not Isabella- and it is important to write names correctly.

No

@ Antico & Lily: You are aware that this isn’t a true story and the writer is describing the tone of the film? Perhaps it should have been "The Discrete Charm of a Bouregois Rape"?

Pedro

Anne and Indiewire guys, please make an article requesting for diversity right now. Every year diversity is a possibility, but the Academy and the others guilds seems to ignore. Sonia Braga and Isabelle Ruppert are deserving of Oscar nomination, but to get there, the press will need to charge academy members to watch the diversity and not keep voting for the same players and English performances Always. Let’s hope a refreshing line-up and even real shots for foreign performances. Isabelle Ruppert winning an Oscar would be mindblowing.

Chizz

How did the Penske censors allow this man – a MAN!!!! – A WHITE MAN (gasp) – to write about a rape movie without reminding the reader in every paragraph just how horrible rape is and how much he is a feminist and how absolutely terrible it is that straight white men perpetuate theae awful crimes against women? Or is this just a rough draft with the righteous outrage to be added later?

Enrique

@AnticoR
I don’t know what’s worse now if Indiewire or it’s readers like you. First of all you haven’t even seen this movie which by the way is based on a novel and since is a story about rape then the movie is automatically bad. Context matters and it seems like people like you don’t even want to understand what this is about.

Sally Carter

FILM SPOILERS AND ERRORS IN THIS REVIEW – Michele is not having an affair with Patrick, she is having an affair with Robert. Patrick is the rapist. As far as I can tell Vincent is not married to Josie and Michele is keen for them to break up. The blood in the bath does not pool around Michele, it is very clearly shown, emanating from the area around her crotch.

I fail to see the humour in a dumb animal observing a violent attack on its owner. And the notion that Michele lies on the floor intrigued by what has just happened to her, sounds insane. You may come to that conclusion later and even then it would be a stretch, but in the immediate aftermath of her rape – I’d have to ask what kind of person you are to think that. Overall I didn’t find the film funny. There is the occasional funny moment which stems mainly from Michele’s relationship with her mother. Otherwise this film is just dark. The rape scenes are brutal and even when we question why Michele seems to deliberately put herself in vulnerable situations, I’m not watching a woman having her head banged against a basement wall and thinking about how light-hearted this film is, I’m thinking, ‘this is bloody horrific’.

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