Review: Elle

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Masterful

Intelligent, stylish, poignant, disturbed and darkly comic. Welcome back, Paul, oh how we've missed you.

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“I love to look at naked girls! I love tits and ass, mostly tits!” A rather infamous quote from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (of Robocop and Total Recall fame) during the press tour of his equally infamous 1995 cult flop Showgirls: a film so awful that you can actually pinpoint the moments where Kyle MacLachlan, Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon’s careers breathed their last. Derided for its dreadful script, acting and retrograde sexual politics, the film was so backwards that it seemed Verhoeven had gone off the deep end, to a land where there is only casual misogyny and such lines as “Man everybody got AIDs n shit!”.

But then along comes Elle: an examination of sexuality and violence in the modern-day world that is unmistakably feminist in tone and presentation. A film of such gravitas that I’m still feeling the effects of it as I write this review, and one which has raised a fair share of deeply significant questions. The most obvious being: does this mean that Showgirls is secretly genius? Because I refuse to believe that a man clever enough to bring us a film like Elle couldn’t have been taking the piss when he made both the film and that rather, shall we say provocative statement.

One of the more infamous scenes in Showgirls involves a particularly cartoonish and malicious gang rape of a young woman by a muscular pop idol and his cohorts. Naturally, like everything else, it’s utterly tasteless and incongruous with the rest of the film’s tone (which flits from sentimental to psychotic in a matter of seconds). Elle also includes its fair share of sexual assault, however this is something else. This is all too real, all too close for comfort. This is slow, unflinching and altogether deeply unsettling. The bombastic colour pallet of Vegas is replaced with a muted winter skyline and any soundtrack that accompanies the scenes is drowned out by protagonist Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) frightened, agonised sobs.

It’s a very bleak experience – be warned, this is not repeat not the rape and revenge thriller that trailers have made it out to be – made even more so by the callous way in which Michèle treats her rape. Following the assault, she cleans up the house, takes a bath and simply carries on with her life. It’s an examination unlike anything cinema has been seen before: both an uncomfortable exploration of sexual violence and a total dismissal of it. Despite the rape playing such a huge part in the emotional language of the film, very little time is spent discussing it. Michèle’s life is constantly played on her own terms, and not even a violent attack such as this will shake her. We see Michèle for the strong, stoic woman that she is, prompting the audience to recognise her as a figure of power and in turn raising the question ‘what’s so bad in her life that she can just brush something like this off?’

Huppert’s performance is beyond words. Of course it is, I can’t think of a single instance where she hasn’t lit up the screen and left me utterly speechless. No stranger to pain, Huppert has dealt with similar topics before, most notably in Michael Haneke’s masterful psychosexual drama The Piano Teacher; and yes, while I do prefer her work in The Piano Teacher, it would be remiss of me to refer to the work in this film as inferior by any measure. Like Haneke, Verhoeven brings the very best out of Huppert. A performance of such complexity, presence and depth that as I stood up to leave the cinema I felt as if I’d been winded. I doubt we’ll see another quite like it this year, or any coming years for that matter.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Elle is how amusing it is. The number of times I found myself able to chuckle at the dry whit exhibited by Verhoeven’s script and Huppert’s delivery is just as unsettling as the film itself. Michèle’s altercations with her mother over the toy boy she has chosen as a potential fiancée and the extent to which her pathetic son is emasculated by the people and places around him (from his adulterous, volatile girlfriend to his inability to exert authority over an event he organised) are pure Verhoeven. Gone is the loud, on-the-nose (albeit extremely funny and effective) consumerist satire presented in Robocop and the fascist machismo of Starship Troopers; here instead is something darker and more mature. Verhoeven breaks down the boundaries between taboo and acceptable, mirroring the film’s distortion of rape and consent and further driving home Michèle’s quasi-nihilist attitude towards the violence done unto her.

Of course this audacious deconstruction of feminism and sexuality may shake some – this is after all the intention, and I feel Verhoeven would be offended if he didn’t cause you an extreme amount of discomfort. Needless to say that this film is not for everyone. But if you are able stomach the opening (and to a lesser extent everything that comes after), the experience is bound to spark debate among cinema-goers and whatever your view of the director’s sexual politics is an undeniably compelling and potentially even rewarding experience. I’d buy that for a dollar!

Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is distributed by SBS Distribution. Certificate 18.

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Filmmaker, philosopher, critic (on occasion). Also writes for MUBI Notebook. It's not the side-effects of the cocaine. I'm thinking that it must be love.

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