Friday, December 9, 2016

ELLE (2016)

Written by David Birke

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. November 14, 2016  7:00 PM

One thing you can say about Paul Verhoeven is that he is not subtle. The Dutch film maker has earned a reputation for creating cinema that is proudly audacious, extreme and provocative. And his films, particularly his Hollywood work, such as "Robocop", "Basic Instinct", and "Showgirls", are filled with a shocking amount of graphic violence and sexuality, particularly at their time of release, that were met with an equal amount of praise and revilement.

After taking a lengthy hiatus from making films, he had originally developed "Elle" as a Hollywood film and had approached several top American actresses for the lead role. But they had all turned him down due to the disturbing nature of the project. So Verhoeven changed the setting to France, took a crash course in French and brought Isabelle Huppert, a legendary performer known for being quite fearless, on board. This explosive duo manages to turn this story of a woman who is savagely violated, physically and emotionally, and enacts revenge in ways that are perplexing and unpredictable in to one of the most unsettling thrillers of the year.

The film opens with the horrific aftermath of a sexual assault by a masked assailant, with him leaving his victim, Michèle Leblanc (Huppert) badly bruised and bleeding on the floor. But what is most shocking is her reaction after this traumatizing event. She calmly picks herself up, cleans up the broken dishes, takes a long bath and orders a pizza, barely acknowledging to herself what has just happened nor making any attempt to notify the police. The next day she carries on, displaying no sign that something terrible occurred, as the head of a successful video game company. As a tough, no-nonsense female in a male dominated industry, Michèle receives either bitter resentment or lustful infatuation from her mostly male employees.

Michèle has had a long history of troubled relationships with men beginning with her father. He's serving a life prison sentence for a horrific crime, a scandal of which she was dragged in to as a young teen, leaving her ostracized and distrustful of the police. While having a somewhat civil relationship with her ex-husband (Charles Berling), she's having difficulties with their overwrought son (Jonas Bloquet) largely due to his gold-digging, pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz). Michèle also has been engaged in an affair with the husband (Christian Berkel) of her close friend and business colleague, Anna (Anne Consigny). But she now wants this liaison to end because she has become infatuated with Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), her married, next-door neighbor.

After receiving an e-mail taunting her about the attack and promising a return visit, Michèle decides to begin her own investigation and engage in self-defense. She purchases pepper-spray, learns to fire a gun and has the computers of all of her employees searched. Despite her best efforts, Michèle is assaulted again but this time she's ready to fight back. She wounds her attacker, unmasking him and discovering she knows the man. Yet her response is not at all what would be expected. Michèle calmly continues her communication with this man, engaging in behavior that makes her appear oddly charmed and intrigued.

If the intention with "Elle" was to provoke, offend, confuse and titillate, then Verhoeven has succeeded like a champion. But the director is also a master at presenting social satire and sexual politics in a way that's cogitative, stylish and with a wicked sense of humor. With an effective script by David Birke, which is based on the Philippe Djian novel, "No. . .", the film takes us on a outlandishly perverse journey of a woman who finally finds a way to liberate herself from being a victim and takes back control of her life.

Not well-known here stateside, Ms Huppert is one of the most honored and acclaimed actresses in the world. Similarly to Meryl Streep, she is the most nominated actress for the César Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, with 15 nominations. And while our Ms Streep is respected for her chameleon-like abilities as a performer, Ms Huppert is lauded for her willingness to explore dark, emotionally complex characters and her work in "Elle" certainly fits that bill. Her character is hardly likable. Michèle can be brutally blunt, dismissive and unnecessarily cruel to friends and family alike. But the actress is quietly hypnotic, keeping you fascinated by her every move. Ms Huppert's powerful presence holds the film in place, making every seemingly crazy and preposterous reaction somehow plausible.

It's clear that some will see "Elle" as an authoritative female empowerment account while others will look at this as no more than an overheated male fantasy. Regardless, this admirably difficult film remains thoroughly fascinating, filled with heightened emotions, twisted sexual games, black comedy and features one of the most spectacularly brave, astonishing and demented performances this year by Ms Huppert.