Elle is a psychological thriller with a heroine we can’t quite figure out. Director Paul Verhoeven (working from a script by David Birke) combines touches of Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock with a realistic story of a woman named Michéle (played by the great Isabelle Huppert, nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award), who becomes the target of a sadistic rapist. Michéle is co-owner of a videogame production company, working alongside her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). They’re both intellectuals who majored in literature, bringing their adept knowledge of narrative to the video game world; a troupe of pasty young millennial gamer-boys works the technological side of the business, and there’s an obvious tension between Michéle and them: perhaps they resent working for women old enough to be their mothers, especially in a business that has always catered to their interests, not the interests of middle-aged women.
At the beginning, we hear the sounds of screaming and grunting while the screen remains black, and when the film opens, the first image we see is Michéle’s cat, stoically monitoring the horrifying act happening in front of him. After Michéle’s attacker leaves, Michéle methodically sweeps up the broken china dishes that toppled to the floor during the scuffle, and then soaks in a bubble bath, where a pool of blood floats to the surface. She, like the cat, appears stoic.
Why doesn’t Michéle call the police? Why doesn’t Michéle display the kinds of emotions we would expect from a person who’s just been raped?
These questions linger in our minds, but the film often answers them not in the traditional method of a thriller–which is all about the shocking reveal–but in giving us more insight into Michéle as a woman. We know something traumatic happened to her as a child; we know that she’s got the hots for her married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) in addition to having an affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel). We know there are many other fascinating dysfunctional relationships in Michéle’s life: She doles out money to her grown son named Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), a perpetual screwup whose tempestuous girlfriend is about to have a baby; she argues with her mother (Judith Magre), who keeps a gigolo (with whom she’s apparently become serious); and she repeatedly pisses off the young gamer-underlings who work for her, until one of them leaks an offensive demo, featuring a woman being raped by a tentacled monster, with Michéle’s face Photoshopped onto the victim.
But the more we get to know Michéle, the less we really understand her, the less we can predict what she will do. It’s a testament to the writing, the directing, and the performance of Huppert, that Michéle is both a fully realized character and an enigma. Verhoeven suggests that sexual attraction is a mysterious animal to begin with, and that past experiences only further complicate the nature of romance and the ways people react to violent acts like rape.
More importantly, though, Elle is a totally mesmerizing film, whether it’s acting like a salacious Brian De Palma thriller or a standard French drama full of people having affairs, dysfunctional relationships spilling into public view during dinner parties and business meetings; people are more open about their moral failings in European movies, and in Elle, it’s as though Michéle feels somehow deserving of the assault. But there’s also something about it that excites her.
Most thrillers don’t know what to do in between scenes of violence, because the characters are too thin: The entertainment hinges on the next violent act, the clues, the solving of the crime, and the heroine’s inevitable battle with the killer. Even still, a thriller like this can be good, if the director knows how to keep the audience perpetually expectant. But Elle deemphasizes those beats to a point; it’s still a satisfying thriller, but it’s a richer movie because it expands the landscape: a thriller featuring actual people with actual problems. Verhoeven never lets us relax, but we’re also totally ensconced in the normal drama of this woman’s life, to the point that we may occasionally forget there’s a psycho out there who may strike at any minute. Elle is a perfectly realized blending of the genres, where the character’s development and the escalating suspense are not antithetical to each other, but rather, build each other up into stronger parts.