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Elle Movie Review

Elle (2016) movie poster Elle

US Theatrical Release: November 11, 2016 (French Release: May 25, 2016) / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Paul Verhoeven / Writers: David Birke (screenplay), Phillipe Djian (novel "Oh...")

Cast: Isabelle Huppert (Michèle Leblanc), Laurent Lafitte (Patrick), Anne Consigny (Anna), Charles Berling (Richard Leblanc), Virginie Efira (Rebecca), Judith Magre (Irène Leblanc), Christian Berkel (Robert), Jonas Bloquet (Vincent Leblanc), Alice Isaaz (Josie), Vimala Pons (Hélène), Raphaël Lenglet (Ralf), Arthur Mazet (Kevin), Lucas Prisor (Kurt), Hugo Conzelmann (Philipp Kwan), Stéphane Bak (Omar)

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven came to Hollywood's attention with violent, high-concept mainstream sci-fi action movies like RoboCop and Total Recall. He scored a second consecutive $100 million grossing hit (back when that meant a lot) with 1992's Basic Instinct, then came the much-maligned and unprofitable Showgirls.
Not the career-killer you might assume it to be, that campy Las Vegas flop led to a couple more sci-fi action flicks in Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, both of which used foreign markets to cushion the blows of domestic underperformance. Following that, Verhoeven has directed two movies in his native Netherlands, one of which (2006's Black Book) commanded some critical respect.

Now, Verhoeven returns with Elle, France's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Historically, more than half of France's submissions have ended up with nominations, a number unrivaled by any other country (including Italy, which holds the record for most wins with 14). Many anticipated Elle to add to that legacy (it won't, though, having missed the Academy's shortlist of nine), which was not something you expect from the director of Showgirls and Hollow Man. But there is nothing campy about Elle, a dark and twisted drama adapted from Phillippe Djian's 2012 novel "Oh..." by America's David Birke (who penned the little-seen horror movie 13 Sins).

Elle opens with mostly the aftermath of a violent rape. Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) has just been aggressively sexually assaulted in her house by an intruder in a ski mask. She is shaken, of course, but not enough to report the crime or cancel her delivery dinner plans with her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who doesn't outright ask for but happily accepts money for an apartment he's moving into with his pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz).

In "Elle", Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) tries to figure out who perform a violent sexual assault in a masked house invasion.

The film is slow to develop our protagonist. We come to learn that Michèle and her friend Anna (Anne Consigny) co-founded and run a company that produces violent, sexual fantasy action video games. They're hard at work on one whose deadlines are fast approaching and Michèle is adamant about keeping the sex (like beast ravaging woman) sexy and explicit. Michèle tells a few of her closest friends about her recent rape, but refuses to go to the police. We eventually understand her reluctance there, when we learn that as a child Michèle was, to some degree, a part of a spree of unthinkable neighborhood atrocities committed by her father. Thirty-nine years later, the case still sparks interest from television documentaries and parole attempts, both of which subject Michèle to the occasional random act of hostility from strangers.

Elle isn't as interested in that as it is in Michèle's rapist, who evidently has plans to attack her again and sends her threatening text messages to that effect. The movie is a bit of a "whodunit" in that regard, as we consider the men in Michèle's life as possible suspects. After a video placing her head on the victim's body in the video game's rape scene animation is sent around the office, she asks the one worker she thinks she can trust to secretly hack into all employees' home computers for possible leads.

Meanwhile, Michèle has to put up with her ex-husband (Charles Berling) beginning to date a doctorate student/yoga teacher (Vimala Pons), her mother (Judith Magre) dating an apparent gigolo (Raphaël Lenglet) less than half her age, and her son standing by the girlfriend she disapproves of even when she gives birth to a child with skin much darker than his. People die. A deer causes a car accident. The rapes and home invasions continue. Michèle tries to break off an affair with the husband (Christian Berkel) of her friend and co-founder. Oh and there are also a couple of parties: a Christmas gathering at Michèle's house and a product launch at her workplace.

 Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) asks an employee to do some hacking and teach her how to shoot.

Elle is certainly different. It's a movie that is full of story, ideas, and characters. It's also full of violent rape and an exploration of complicated feelings resulting from that.

Is it lurid and trashy? A bit. Is it complex and artistic? Absolutely. It's a challenging viewing and one you'll need time to sort out your own personal reaction to it. That much makes it easy for critics, who are so often exposed to the same formulas and structures, to respect and appreciate. Whether they and ordinary thinking moviegoers can do more than that and actually "like" the film on some level is less certain.

The film definitely boasts some commendable performances, most extensively and obviously from Huppert, who in real life has been acting nearly as long as her 49-year-old character has been alive. Primed for potential American stardom all the way back in Michael Cimino's 1980 commercial disaster Heaven's Gate, Huppert has had a renaissance in recent years, landing substantial roles in films that have been seen all over the world, from Michael Haneke's Best Picture-nominated Amour to English language films like The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Louder Than Bombs. With Sony Pictures Classics distributing, there is some hope that the 63-year-old Huppert could land her first Academy Award nomination, as Amour's Emmanuelle Riva did and Marion Cotillard has done in multiple French-speaking roles. The odds are against Huppert, but that she is even in the conversation is a testament to her strong work here.

Verhoeven doesn't have any of the baggage that comes from having to hope viewers can find the satire in his big, loud action movies. Elle has some deliberately humorous beats, but this is a dark and mature psychological drama whose substance isn't likely to elude anyone brave enough to watch a subtitled French film, whether or not they warm to it.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: MoonlightManchester by the SeaLa La LandJackieArrival
Isabelle Huppert: AmourLouder Than BombsThe Disappearance of Eleanor RigbyHeaven's GateDead Man Down
French Films: Two Days, One NightThe IntouchablesOf Gods and Men
Written by David Birke: 13 Sins

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Reviewed December 23, 2016.

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