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‘Elle’: Why Paul Verhoeven’s Rape Revenge Drama is Essential Viewing, Even for the Squeamish

The Isabelle Huppert-starring Cannes breakout may sound hard to handle, but it's got more to offer than meets the eye.

Elle Isabelle Huppert

“Elle”

Sony Pictures Classics

As Paul Verhoeven’s controversial Isabelle Huppert-starring “Elle” finally hits theaters this weekend, IndieWire’s Kate Erbland and Anne Thompson traded notes on the bold film and its depiction of rape, female empowerment and the power of humor in the face of unexpected trauma.

Kate Erbland: I confess that I balked a little when I saw our own Eric Kohn’s early review of the film out of Cannes, which calls the film “a lighthearted rape-revenge story,” but having now seen the film at last month’s New York Film Festival, I struggle to find better wording. It’s both of those things, lighthearted and a rape-revenge story, and that’s a nearly impossible combination to make work, no matter who is behind it, and “Elle” has got some serious wattage to recommend it.

The film stars the always-wonderful Isabelle Huppert as the “post-feminist” Michele, a hard-driving career woman who appears to be fully in control of her professional and personal lives (even if that often includes running roughshod over people she ostensibly cares about), a real tough cookie who knows how to take care of herself in the face of some horrendous circumstances (the film builds in a backstory that further speaks to this particular mindset in jaw-dropping fashion).

READ MORE: Post-Feminist Power: How Isabelle Huppert And Others Are Giving Us a New Kind of Movie Hero

“Elle” opens with Michele’s brutal rape, and unfolds to chronicle the unexpected ways she deals with it, putting the screws on both her audience and her perpetrator. Despite that plot, however, the film is also very funny, thematically layered and often shocking, and it’s packed with twisty (and twisted) movements and a surprisingly original tone, both of which gleefully and frequently buck the traditional concept of what a “rape-revenge film” can (or “should”) be.

And, yes, it’s very funny. But can a film that’s rooted in a violent crime still be light-hearted and, dare I say it, fun? Did you laugh at “Elle”? Is it wrong to?

Anne Thompson: I am convinced that Isabelle Huppert is the reason the film has its comedic tone. In fact, Paul Verhoeven, at a recent Sneak Previews Q&A, admitted as much. During production, he saw her going that way and the rest of the team followed her lead. There’s so much going on in her face; she’s wicked, impish, fierce, frightened, turned on, angry, determined. She will not be a victim of rape. She will not let this burglar rapist dominate her or ruin her life. She will keep going forward, strong and self-reliant. She won’t let rape make her not have sex, or not have fun. She will chase a handsome neighbor and feel him up under the table at a dinner party.

While Verhoeven tried to set the project up in Hollywood with an English script by writer David Birke, no American actress was willing to do this. But Huppert was interested from the publishing of the original 2012 French novel “Oh…,” by Philippe Djian. She saw how to do Michele. She got it.

"Elle"

“Elle”

Kate: Verhoeven and Huppert also talked about how Huppert added her own essential female voice to the film. At the New York Film Festival, Huppert told a post-press screening crowd, “I think Paul said that he was interested with what I was doing, because since I was a woman, by definition I would know more than him, what I was supposed to do. It is a kind of documentary about a woman.”

Some people have criticized the film for being written and directed by a man, but we agree that Huppert’s point of view and talent make the film work as well as it does. Another thing that I find compelling about the film is that Michele, for all her can-do spirit and impressive attitude, often behaves badly, yet you can’t help cheering for her, understanding her and totally just getting her. Not only does “Elle” reinvent what’s possible when we make a film about rape, Verhoeven has done it with a character who happily breaks the “likable” mold.

Do you like Michele? Does not liking her add something to the film?

Anne: No question Michele is a naughty girl, as defined by the conventions of Hollywood cinema. Of course, what we enjoy about Huppert is that she’s a sophisticated, strong woman, multi-faceted and complex, easy to read on one level but also mysterious. Verhoeven and Huppert want it that way — they leave room for the audience to figure out what she’s thinking and doing and why.

READ MORE: Why ‘Elle’ Star Isabelle Huppert Is the Actress Whose Oscar Time Has Come

What helps this movie break the mold — even if the script was Americanized and then brought back to its French roots — is that it’s French. Verhoeven learned to speak the language in order to join the Paris cast and crew.

There are moments when I felt Verhoeven was veering toward sensationalism — some of the flirty bits with the handsome neighbor made me uncomfortable — but Huppert makes this character work. I didn’t always like the way she treated her family and coworkers. She was brusque, imperious, even cruel in terms of what she put them through in order to achieve her own ends. But this is what makes good drama. A compelling character who is unpredictable and flawed, yet compelling. Actors get them all the time. Actresses? Not so much.

What don’t you like about the movie?

Kate: I am not entirely sure what it is, but there is something keeping me back from fully loving the film. I find it amusing, unique, rich and wild, all of that capped off with Huppert’s performance and a very strong supporting cast. There are scenes in it that I am still thinking about — including one of the funniest “let’s all gather ’round this holiday table and hash out our issues” sequences in recent memory — and I’d love to watch it again so that I could spend more time paying attention to some of its more compelling and unexpected subplots, and perhaps that would push my strong like into actual love.

The real issue is expectations. It’s a film that we’re not used to seeing, and there’s inherent discomfort in seeing something so far out of the box.

 

Anne: What’s always fun about Verhoeven is that he pushes past our comfort zones. He follows nasty characters who don’t know what they are doing. And Huppert runs with it.

READ MORE: ‘Elle’: Isabelle Huppert on Why Her Controversial Film About Rape Is ‘Post-Feminist’

Together, Verhoeven and Huppert concoct a heady Hitchcock/Chabrol hybrid that strays beyond both American and French genre conventions. But as much as Huppert is able to make her character believable, there are a few places where I resisted. Would she really act that way at dinner? Put herself at so much physical risk? Dump on her cherished girlfriend? Force her own son to commit acts that will haunt him for the rest of his life? Sure, this was a compelling, twisty thriller, entertainingly delivered by a master filmmaker who enjoys manipulating  provocative material. But I agree, it’s far from perfect.

Kate: But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a watch. I saw it weeks ago and can’t stop thinking about it. That’s powerful — and that may also be the point of its wild provocations.

“Elle” will be released in theaters on Friday, November 11. 

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