Some reviews flow. Some stutter. Some, such as this one, sit delightfully uncomfortably between the two. When it comes to heaping praise on Isabelle Huppert’s utterly remarkable central performance, the words come oh so easily. It’s a jaw-dropping performance of strength and stillness and humour. She’s so incredible here that she makes a very strong case that the only films worth seeing from this point on are films that feature Isabelle Huppert.
When it comes to describing the film, however, you slip into stickier ground. I’ve had Elle described to me, by a female critic, as a “rape comedy”. Both those words do apply but, I’d say, with certain caveats. However, I must bear in mind I’m also approaching this sticky ground as a man, so wouldn’t dare to pass opinion on a film that, ostensibly, IS about a rape victim. However, it’s a film that, as it skips adeptly around its multiple genres – drama, comedy, revenge thriller – raises some interesting questions about life, 21st century sexual encounters, gender politics, relationships and, particularly, coping with life-changing events: for example, when is it okay to laugh again after experiencing a tragedy.
I’m heading back to the film just below, but indulge me a second. My family is very practical when it comes to death. Other families are, I know, less so. When my grandfather died many years ago, an old, old friend of his came up to my grandmother at the end of the wake, clasped her hand and asked, with deep sincerity “have you had a good day?” Without missing a beat, she replied “well, apart from burying my husband, yes…” When she told us all later, we were howling with laughter. Years on, I still chuckle about that incident, as have many people I’ve told. Others though look aghast, asking how could we possibly have laughed at a time like that, have some respect, etc., etc. To them I’ve asked, well, that’s our family, but out of interest, how long afterwards should we have waited? What is the timescale? Are we allowed a small grin after a fortnight, building up to a wider smile after six weeks, a small chuckle after three months and then fill blown laughing fit on the anniversary? Or, you know, can we just acknowledge that different people react in different ways?
Which brings me back to the film. Huppert plays Michele LeBlanc, the founder and CEO of a video game company. At the very start of the film, with her cat looking passively on, Michele is attacked in her own home and raped. She has a bath, tidies up and doesn’t call the police as, based on past experiences, and due to the rather unusual circumstances of her youth, they won’t be especially helpful.
Over dinner, matter-of-factly, she does tell her ex-husband, however, and her business partner and the partner’s husband. Who, it transpires, Michele is sleeping with. While outwardly calm and passive, Michele harbours some thoughts of revenge, speculating that she most likely knows her attacker. There are a few candidates – particularly a game developer she’s chastised in front of other employees – but director Paul Verhoeven (yes, THAT Paul Verhoeven) doesn’t do anything directly or, indeed, take this in the direction of a standard cat-and-mouse thriller. And, around it all, there’s a quite beautiful comedy of manners – and a strand of borderline farce involving her son and his deeply unpleasant girlfriend – that is genuinely hilarious.
The film veers between these genres but that never jars, it never feels clunky. It feels like… well, like life, really. The specific elements may be VERY different for most of us, but the basic notion, that life regularly lurches between tragedy and comedy, is exquisitely observed and handled. And it all rests on Huppert’s slight but oh-so-strong shoulders.
Many will loathe this film, and understandably so. It is not easy viewing, it’s not conventional, the subject matter is raw, and ultimately Elle wanders down some very unusual paths and drags you with it, whether you want to go there or not. For me though, this is about as good as it gets – it’s maybe two months since I’ve seen it, and I’ve found myself thinking about it pretty much daily. Any “controversial” twist or plot point is not here just to shock or titillate – slightly remarkable given the director’s history – but to prompt debate, to worm inside the human psyche, probe around in the deepest, worst lit corners and hold up a dark, dark mirror to modern life. Even as it veers towards the extremes of its climax, Elle remains oddly, deeply, remarkably human.