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A veteran high school teacher befriends a younger art teacher, who is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students. However, her intentions with this new "friend" also go well beyond platonic friendship.
Michèle seems indestructible. Head of a successful video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. Being attacked in her home by an unknown assailant changes Michèle's life forever. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game-a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.Written by
When the film was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in a Foreign Language, it was already clear that it would not be eligible for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; even though the Oscar nominations had not been announced yet, 'Elle' had failed to make the shortlist of nine films for that category. Paul Verhoeven later said that this fact may have helped the film to win the Golden Globe. See more »
At the gun range, before firing the .44-revolver, Michèle fails to put her earmuffs back on. Yet after the shot, her hearing is not affected. See more »
Paul Verhoeven has always worn the mantle of provocateur with pride, from the alluringly pulp "Basic Instinct" to the scandalous stripper saga that was "Showgirls." Even when he dips his toe in genre fare, there's still nevertheless an undercurrent of erotic satire in them (remember the tri-boobed woman in "Total Recall"?). Even when Verhoeven plays it straight, like in the brilliant "Black Book", his films nevertheless drip with sensuality. His latest film, however, takes a more measured but by no means less lacerating tack.
At first glance, "Elle" is so cold-blooded it could almost be mistaken for a Michael Haneke film, especially as it features Haneke's muse, the glacially poised Isabelle Huppert, at its center. Certainly, "Elle" kicks right off in a suitably brutal manner one would typically see from Haneke: namely, the savage rape of its primary character in her own home by a masked intruder. Shades of "Funny Games" certainly are evident here, but Verhoeven nevertheless keeps his own brand of reptilian energy alive in the film. Huppert's Michèle immediately gets back into her daily routine: overseeing the newest release from her video-game company, dealing with the drama of her son's upcoming fatherhood with a girl Michèle cannot stand, and seeing her mother tentatively flirting with a new marriage while her father, a convicted murderer, languishes in prison. With everything on Michèle's plate, a little sexual assault is merely seasoning.
The shocking opening scene will certainly have audiences squirming, and indeed Verhoeven revisits it a couple of times throughout the film as Michèle mulls over the event, with variations here and there as she imagines how she could have defended herself—or provoked him further. And despite her desire to move on from the event, it continues to linger, especially as her assailant sends her threatening texts that he may not be done with her. But rather than go to the police, Michèle finds herself almost being an encouraging presence to her assailant, as though she craves the demeaning, degrading act to which she was subjected.
It is certainly a problematic viewpoint for any film to have: that of a rape victim desiring to return to the act itself. But Verhoeven's lurid sensibility strangely doesn't hit the exploitative level that he typically sets out to achieve. While the story does juggle its fair share of melodramatic subplots (swapping out an affair for a cuckolding here while touching on a dark childhood there), it mostly focuses on playing up the stalker cat-and- mouse theme. Michèle goes the "Brave One" route at first: buying (and using) mace, going to a gun range. But as all of her life's little foibles start to coalesce all at once, it's almost as though she seeks the grim simplicity of simply being a "victim."
I've always found Huppert to be a technically masterful but nevertheless somewhat clinical actress, one whose austerity can sometimes keep us at arm's length when she should instead be drawing us closer, deeper. I find that can be a bit of a detriment to some of her performances, but "Elle" relies on that puritanical presence, and her ascetic approach to her portrayal of Michèle is largely what makes the film work in the first place. She navigates the hectic labyrinth of her life like a ship cutting through thick fog, and even as Verhoeven puts his thumb on the tongue-in-cheek scales, she never once feels like she's in on the joke. Though Huppert was not Verhoeven's first choice (he shopped the script to the likes of Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten beforehand), she nevertheless feels like the right one. Her flinty nature provides the dour center the film requires.
"Elle" does feel a bit bloated in his second half, and I honestly could've done with most of its tangential subplots being axed. Verhoeven's films generally outstay their welcome in terms of runtime, and Ellecomes dangerously close to that, but Huppert's compelling performance and Verhoeven's approach to the material will keep audiences in their seats, albeit forever squirming.
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