Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle, the formidable boss of a successful, violent video game company which she runs alongside her friend Anna (Anne Cosigny). Elle opens in gleefully controversial fashion; Michèle is pinned to the floor and raped by a masked intruder while her cat watches on with vague interest. Our disgust towards this visceral, brutal rape is quickly offset by amusement at the cat’s indifference to such a horrific act. Verhoeven lurches between shock and humour with fantastic ingenuity throughout Elle, leaving the audience to deliberate over the film’s rich ambiguities.
Once the assault has finished and the rapist has fled, Michèle doesn’t call the police but cleans up the mess and takes a bath. This muted reaction perfectly encapsulates Michèle’s characterisation; she’s a confident, controlled and rational woman. Also, calling the police would just attract unwanted attention, as Michèle’s the daughter of an infamous mass murderer and she’s unfairly become a symbol for his violent killing spree. A gripping game of cat and mouse ensues as Michèle seeks to unmask the identity of the intruder in a typically calculated fashion.
David Birke’s superb screenplay threads multiple characters and plot strands together with meticulous detail. Michèle helps her hot-headed son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant, controlling girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) find an apartment, while dealing with her mother’s (Judith Magre) sexual appetite for younger men, and carrying out an affair with Anne’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel). She also becomes strangely allured to her married neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). It’s a credit to all those involved that the character dynamics feel so organic and effortless. All of these separate elements feed into each other beautifully and come together in an elegantly staged and hilariously uncomfortable Christmas Eve dinner.
The film’s tonal and narrative balancing act is held together by a dazzling, powerhouse performance from Hubbert. It’s such a diverse, complex portrayal and Hubbert hits all the dramatic and comedic beats dead on, expertly constructing an enthralling portrait of a woman who challenges society’s ingrained responses to sexual abuse.
Verhoeven’s first film since 2006 and his first foray into French language cinema is a multi-faceted, endlessly engaging, masterful success. Despite revolving around a disturbing rape scene, Elle is a thrilling, uproarious hoot.