Bravo to France for taking a risk by picking their official foreign language Oscar submission, “Elle,” over shortlist contenders “The Innocents” by Anne Fontaine, “Frantz” by François Ozon and “Cézanne and I” by Danièle Thompson. SPC took a chance that the Cannes competition entry would make the cut when they acquired “Elle” out of Cannes.
Why the risk? Well, it’s one thing for the movie to play well with sophisticated audiences and critics in Europe, and another in North America, where the psychosexual thriller may run into a different set of reactions, especially from politically correct sensibilities such as Women in Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein. (Post Cannes and Toronto, “Elle” sits at a very high 87% on Metacritic.)
Always enjoying stirring things up is Dutch filmmaker Verhoeven, whose “Basic Instinct” opened the Cannes Film Festival in competition 25 years ago. Now 77, he returns to the realm of dark sexual fantasy in the Americanized French thriller “Elle.” The film begins when a prosperous single videogame entrepreneur (exquisitely played by Huppert) is viciously violated in the opening scene. She chooses to deal with the violent break-in, rape and continued contact with the rapist in her own way, and for her own reasons.
The film, like the Philippe Dijan novel on which it is based, plays with the realm of violent sex. In his initial English-language adaptation, American screenwriter David Birke gave the film a more compact and visual thriller structure. But Verhoeven and producer Saïd Ben Saïd (who works with Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma) had trouble finding the right star to play the lead role of an elegant woman who after the violation of her home and body refuses to call the police—preferring to buy pepper spray and learn how to shoot. Then they found out that Huppert was interested. So Verhoeven decided to direct his first French movie—and, he told me at Sony Pictures Classics’ dinner in Toronto, brushed up on his rusty French.
Now well-regarded veteran Huppert, who is France’s Meryl Streep, has two gigantic performances heading toward the fall awards circuit: Her chances of landing her first Best Actress nomination for “Elle” will be enhanced by Mia Hansen-Love’s Berlin hit “Things to Come” (Sundance Selects). If the Academy came through for Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”), Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”) and Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”), why not Huppert?
“Elle” will be released in theaters on November 11.