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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …