Michèle is attacked in her home, brutally raped by a man in a ski mask. She cleans up the mess, and herself. She doesn’t reveal the assault for several days, when she calmly tells a tableful of friends at a restaurant. Her response may seem a little cold to some, but she’s grappling with it, in fact reliving it all the time (which means we get to witness the rape repeatedly). Michèle has some childhood trauma that makes her distrustful of the police, but after the attack she continues to get threatening text messages that keep her on edge.
Michèle, the character, is an interesting woman. She’s a successful businesswoman, the boss at a video game company with a lot of young men working under her, with varying degrees of respect, resentment, and lust toward her. She has a grown son who is increasingly under the thumb of his pregnant girlfriend, and thus more estranged from his mother. She has exes, lovers, and erotic fixations. Some of them may surprise you. She reminds us that there are many ways to respond to this kind of violation, and none of them are necessarily wrong. But victimhood does not sit well with Michèle; Michèle plots revenge. Michèle’s complexity is a welcome layer to this psychological thriller, and it’s superbly executed by Isabelle Huppert. Huppert won the Golden Globe for her performance and is nominated for an Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. This is a career best for her, and she’s not exactly a slouch.
The harder pill to swallow is that Elle is directed by Paul Verhoeven – THAT Verhoeven; Showgirls Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s filmography is, erm, varied. Neither Robocop nor Starship Troopers really signal that he’s capable of this kind of film. Tonally it resembles Basic Instinct most closely, but this work still shows more maturity and more nuance than we’ve perhaps seen from him before. Maybe this is owing to the film’s source material, the book ‘Oh…’ by Philippe Dijan.