Skip to main content

Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me.

Elle
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven certainly loves courting controversy, and in a year’s time he’ll still be courting controversy as a rare octogenarian filmmaker (rare enough that there are octogenarian filmmakers who aren’t Clint Eastwood, rarer still that there are ones still fanning the flames of outrage). I didn’t find myself outraged by Elle, though, I suspect mainly because I was constantly aware of how calculated its provocative elements are; in a way, this is as precisely designed to elicit a response as his earlier Basic Instinct (with which it very loosely shares a genre bracket), with streaks of black humour and irreverence running through subject matter that usually (rightly) elicits the most respectful and cautious treatment.


Isabelle Huppert is Michele Leblanc, who in the opening scene is raped by a ski mask-wearing intruder but reacts not in the manner of the traumatised, but rather as if this is just another incident in the daily mix of events both pleasant and unpleasant (she proceeds to have a normal evening’s dinner with her son). We initially suspect her blasé response is over-compensation, putting on a composed demeanour, as do her friends when she eventually tells them (following the second incident, which she doesn’t mention).


But there’s evidently more going on within her psyche, a steeliness that set in during childhood after being associated with the crimes of her father (locked up after going on a killing spree and now refused parole). We even wonder if she too might tend towards the sociopathic, but then she cares for a tiny bird her cat has been mauling, which would seem to rule that out (a reading has been presented that she’s a sociopath because she doesn’t respond to the rape, even that she was the killer, not her father, although that feels like a little too much like the kind of schematic twist – of the Basic Instinct variety – that would fully immerse the picture in the genre landscape Verhoeven appears to be trying to avoid, loose mechanisms aside).


Michele’s job as the producer of computer games involves her unemotionally instructing an aggressive, headstrong male programmer on upping elements of sexual violence and violation. Meanwhile, she’s unscrupulously conducting an affair with her best friend’s husband (her friend is also her business partner) and flirting with her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) while expressing contempt for the personal choices of her son Vincent (his girlfriend’s baby clearly isn’t his) and mother Irene (announcing she is going to marry someone half her age). And then, when she learns the identity of her rapist (her neighbour), she responds by continuing the liaison as a particularly dangerous game.


Which is Verhoeven’s film, a dangerous game setting out its store in dangerous territory. It’s also as confidently, boldly engrossing as anything he’s done. The very positing of an anti-traumatised protagonist is one thing, but in staging this tale, Verhoeven utilises tools very much of the thriller genre. There’s a mystery throughout – who is the rapist; is he the one superimposing her face on the video game? – with liberal red herrings dropped into the plot.


You might – legitimately – argue the whole premise of Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke’s project (adapted from Oh… by Phillipe Dijan) is irresponsible, but you might equally conclude it’s unlikely anyone who might misinterpret it as undermining the seriousness of the subject would be going near an art movie like this anyway. Notably, the picture was originally intended for a US shoot, but the problems finding an American lead willing to take the part nixed the idea. Verhoeven commented that, if filmed there, its content would have pushed it (even) more towards Basic Instinct and “a lot of the things that are important to the movie would probably have been diminished. By bringing it more into a thriller direction, I think it would have lost everything. It would probably have been banal and transparent”. And it would probably also have unequivocally crossed the line in the subject it is exploring.


Huppert portrays Michele with subtle gradations; so many of her choices are unsympathetic, or outright conflicting (when she calls Patrick after hitting a deer and crashing her car), and yet in many of them (be they in respect of her son, lover or mother) we can readily appreciate them. She admits her liaison to her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) in the most incautious of arenas (“Because I don’t want to lie any more”), but her motive appears genuine, and she is fortunate that Anna proves the most forgiving of companions.


Huppert commented, “Obviously, the movie’s about a woman, But it’s also about men, you know, and the men are sort of fading figures, very weak, quite fragile. So it’s really about the empowerment of a woman”. Indeed, one of the most telling moments comes at the end, when son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), an emotional doorstop to a manipulative and scolding partner Josie (Alice Isaaz) throughout, is seen emboldened and confident, reconciled with her after their separation, and there’s no doubting this change has come through the act of killing, of asserting his primal masculine instinct (some readings have Vincent as the initial rapist, but that seems again, a bit too twisty).


The other men are equally displaced, from her ex-husband (Charles Berling) having an affair with a young yoga instructor (who ends it with him) to her partner’s other half (Christian Berkel), jealous of Michele’s flirtations and unwilling to accept the end of the affair. As for the rapist, his response to Michele probing his motivation is simply “It was necessary”; he can be aroused only by such aberrant behaviour, and since his sense of sexual identity is all-consuming, he considers it necessary.


The picture does leave question marks in terms of plot, and that can be problematic if they threaten to overwhelm those that ought to hold sway thematically or in terms of character. Some are merely intriguing, such as how much Patrick’s wife knew (“I’m so glad you could give him what he needed” isn’t exactly her admitting she knew he was a rapist, but it could certainly be read that way). Others, such as how her son came to be back home to kill Patrick, are more preoccupying (she didn’t appear to ask him, so it doesn’t look like they conspired, as Patrick’s “Why?” might suggest, but it feels like a stretch to suggest he was lifting wine at the party in order to drug his mother).


It should also be emphasised that Elle is shot through with humorous incident, not least a dinner party from hell that takes in everything from Michelle’s mother (Judith Magre) announcing her engagement, to Patrick’s devout wife (Virginie Efira) asking to put the Mass on against a most unreligious backdrop. The ashes sequence is also very funny.


Verhoeven and Birke might be accused of irresponsibly fuelling the tendency to the patriarchal gaze, but that would be to ignore Huppert’s input in the picture. And conversely, Verhoeven’s never been one to lead a cause, but rather takes an idiosyncratic path; it’s self-evident this isn’t a feminist film, as some would claim, but it’s easier to define Elle by how difficult it is to pigeonhole than what it may or may not be saying. Certainly, if some of the theories expounded regarding its possible twists are in the ballpark of the authors’ intentions, I’d argue that it makes it a less interesting picture, and one consequently more culpable in terms of simply being transgressive for the sake of it. So I’ll give the mad Dutchman benefit of the doubt on that score. One thing is abundantly clear; he’s lost none of his cinematic touch.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

He's not a nightstalker, and it'll take a lot more than bench presses to defeat him.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) (SPOILERS) The most successful entry in the franchise, if you don’t count Freddy vs. Jason . And the point at which Freddy went full-on vaudeville, transformed into adored ringmaster rather than feared boogeyman. Not that he was ever very terrifying in the first place (the common misapprehension is that later instalments spoiled the character, but frankly, allowing Robert Englund to milk the laughs in bad-taste fashion is the saving grace of otherwise forgettably formulaic sequel construction). A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasts the most inventive, proficient effects work yet, but it’s also by far the least daring in terms of plotting, scraping together a means for Freddy to persist in his nocturnal pestilence while offering nothing in the way of the unexpected, be it characterisations or story points.

Give daddy the glove back, princess.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) (SPOILERS) Looking at Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare , by some distance the least lauded (and laudable) of the original Elm Street sextet, you’d think it inconceivable that novice director and series old-hand – first as assistant production manager and finally as producer – Rachel Talalay has since become a respected and in-demand TV helmer. For the most part, Freddy’s Dead is shockingly badly put together. It reminded me of the approach the likes of Chris Carter and Sir Ken take, where someone has clearly been around productions, absorbing the basics of direction, but has zero acumen for turning that into a competent motion picture, be it composition, scene construction, editing or pacing. Talalay’s also responsible for the story idea here, which does offer a few nuggets, at least, but her more primary role actively defeats any positives.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.