Quick Flick: Elle
To even describe the basic premise of Elle is a struggle. Part serious rape drama, part gripping revenge thriller and part sharp comedy, this latest shocker from Paul Verhoeven refuses to be confined within one particular genre, making it one of the most fascinating and gripping films of the year.
Isabelle Huppert as Elle is the absolute center of the film, a commanding force whose sheer brutality and overwhelming power is both exciting and terrifying to witness. Her constant unpredictability makes her every move uncertain and ever more intriguing. By far one of the most powerful female roles in years, she suits the tone of Verhoeven's film perfectly, sashaying between razor-sharp wit and brutal sincerity without a moment's notice. No matter how seemingly confusing or intimidating her actions, she holds the screen like no other, the icy driving force of every scene.
It is no understatement to describe Elle as the epitome of dark humour. After all, it is very surprising to find yourself laughing at a film which opens with a shocking act of rape. But the stunningly resilient character of Elle (her immediate actions following the assault is to sweep up the broken glass and take a bath) creates a somewhat surreal edge to the rest of the film.
However, it is important to know that this is a film that in no way trivialises rape. After all, much of the plot revolves around Huppert's quest for revenge against her masked attacker and, despite her often cold and cruel demeanor, we are constantly rooting for her. But the events that unfold grow so increasingly preposterous and unbelievable that, at times, it is very hard to take it seriously. A brilliant script, featuring plenty of acidic one-liners and pointed retorts, delivers a surprising amount of laughs and crafts an ensemble of unlikeable but strangely captivating characters.
In interviews, Verhoeven has explained that he wanted the film to "be like life. We don't live in genre. We live tragedy, comedy, burlesque and whatever," and this mindset is very clear throughout. It is a film which purposely defies genres, flitting between electrifying tension and cynical wit in a heartbeat. It feels like Verhoeven intended to really push the boundaries and deliberately provoke his audience, and the effect is extraordinary.
Elle may sound like a complete mess of a film, a muddled jigsaw of unmatchable tones. But it somehow works and it works with style. Huppert is integral to this success, delivering a steely and increasingly gripping performance in a wildly unpredictable thriller that shocks and surprises at every turn.