The Cannes Film Festival is notorious for its adventurous cinematic lineup, and over the years, they've screened a wide range of controversial films. With dark visions from directors like Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier bringing all kinds of disturbing realism to the Croisette, the festival is no stranger to screening movies that will have people talking. This year, the most talked-about movie was Paul Verhoeven's Elle, and it's a film that raises eyebrows just based on the concept alone. Essentially, Elle is a pitch-black comedy/thriller about a woman, played by the iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert, who is the victim of a brutal sexual assault. It handles the material in a completely unexpected way, and for a lot of people, the idea of a movie about rape with so many humorous elements will be cringe-worthy. It's tough to figure out how to respond to a movie that pushes so many provocative and topical buttons, and I think that audiences will avoid Verhoeven's film in droves.
At its essence, Elle is an endlessly fascinating portrait of an incredibly disturbed individual. It's one of the more compelling character studies of the year, and the fact that no clear answers are given makes the film equal parts enticing and frustrating. The rape scenes are unflinching, graphic, and horrific, and yet at the same time, there's no question that there are a lot of laughs in this film. It's a strange concoction that blends extreme Hitchcockian thriller elements with the style of a dysfunctional family drama, and while it doesn't always work, Elle is never less than fully engaging. I'm still sorting out my feelings on this one even a week after seeing it, but there's something about it that is just unshakable. With a stunning performance from Huppert and the brilliant direction of Verhoeven, Elle is a grisly and thoroughly outrageous thriller. You may hate it, but you can't call it boring.
In the opening scene of Elle, Michele Leblanc (Huppert) is raped in her home by an unknown man. After the assault occurs, she doesn't call the police or contact anybody. She just sorta goes on with her business. We quickly learn that Michele isn't exactly like any female protagonist we've ever seen. She's a complex creature with a multi-layered history, devoted to taking her revenge on her rapist while also being fiercely committed to her own brand of justice. To describe all of Michele's complicated relationships would be an exercise in total futility, but it's safe to say that she has her fair share of drama in her life. She's the daughter of a notorious murderer, has a strangely normal relationship with her ex-husband, and is incredibly dismissive of her own son. Elle is a female empowerment story, but at the same time, it's a rich, funny, and absurd tale of a crazy group of people.
Elle is being defined by the rape scenes in the story, and even though I know that many critics will try to convince audiences that the movie "isn't about the rape," it's not difficult to understand why these scenes are the focal point of the conversation surrounding this film. They're brutal and horrific, and they occur frequently throughout. If there was only one scene involving a sexual assault, I think people might be able to delve deeper into the other things in the story. But rape is such a pervasive part of this story, and I almost feel like the disturbing nature of the film hinders some of the incredibly interesting character work. Verhoeven has crafted one of the most indelible characters of the year with Michele, but the movie is so sickening and tough to stomach that I don't know if audiences will respond to what works in the film.
In fact, I think it's quite telling that I'm several days removed from seeing this film and yet I'm still trying to decide how I felt. This is a tricky movie and one that isn't content on telling audiences how to feel. Is Elle a movie that handles its topic insensitively? That's up for you to decide. Verhoeven presents you with a complicated character in an unsettling situation, and doesn't ask you to judge or understand, but to simply observe. Michele Leblanc isn't sympathetic and neither is the movie as a whole. Elle could be easily dismissed as exploitative or crass, a film that's out to provoke audience members and nothing more. In a filmmaking culture where many things are played safe, Verhoeven takes an incredible risk with an unapologetic film that takes no prisoners and gives no answers. It's horrifying, it knows it, and it knows that audiences won't know how to respond. That's a special kind of gutsy.
Ultimately, if you're able to overlook just how nasty and graphic Elle is (which I eventually was able to do), you'll find that Verhoeven has created a crafty, often brilliant film. In the post-screening Q&A, he listed several of his directorial influences for Elle, and the one that stuck out to me the most was Alfred Hitchcock. The shadow of Hitchcock hangs over this movie, and every scene has the exquisite tension and lurid sexuality of a piece of work from the Master of Suspense. Call it Hitchcock Gone Wild, if you will. Elle is what would happen if Hitchcock was allowed to explore the deepest, darkest corners of his twisted mind on screen, and it proves to be quite compelling at times. Verhoeven directs the movie like a conductor, closely manipulating the audience with each gruesome twist and turn. My experience with Verhoeven primarily involves his schlockier efforts (Starship Troopers, Total Recall), so to see him directing a movie so masterfully was quite the revelation.
Huppert is also sensational in the lead role, fully deserving of every ounce of praise that she'll receive over the next few months. With the help of Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke, Huppert has managed to create a character that is fiercely cunning, profoundly intelligent, and endlessly unlikable. I guarantee you that you will never like Michele LeBlanc at any point during this movie. You may feel for her, but she makes so many baffling, despicable choices that will make it hard for any audience member to empathize with her. But here's the important thing- you can never, ever take her eyes off her. Huppert's Michele belongs in the annals of great movie sociopaths, alongside such characters as Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom and Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman. She's that good.
Elle is a tough watch, but if you're okay with taking an interesting, often vicious journey, you'll be rewarded with a film that is as unforgettable as it is disturbing. Just when you think it can't get any more intense, Verhoeven cranks it up a notch, leaving you a film that will physically and mentally exhaust you. Huppert and the famed Dutch filmmaker are at the top of their game here, working with harsh material in a revolutionary new way. Darkly funny, shockingly lurid, and perpetually watchable, Elle is a startling crime drama and a character study that is sure to divide audiences right down the middle (for the record, my dad hated it). But for adventurous fans, Verhoeven's shocking thriller will be one of the most alluring films of the year.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.8/10)
Image Credits: Joblo, Variety, IMDB