Katherine McLaughlin


Elle – first look review

Isabelle Huppert delivers a stunning, unflinching performance in this blackly comic rape-revenge thriller.

Paul Verhoeven examines controversial subject matter with this juicy and complex character study of a smart businesswoman who is sexually assaulted in her home. The director takes his time in building mystery and intrigue surrounding Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) tragic, violent past and approaches her questionable actions with a gleefully perverse sense of humour.

The film opens on complete blackness. We hear only crashing sounds and Michèle’s screams as she is raped by a masked intruder. On his departure, Michèle bins her dress, takes a long hot bath, orders sushi and awaits the arrival of her grown-up and mildly incompetent son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet). She lies about her assault and carries on regardless.

Verhoeven returns to this brutal event several times throughout the film and as we enter further into Michèle’s mind the picture becomes clearer. But we also witness her fantasy of taking revenge on her assailant. These initial scenes are shocking and infused with a chilling grimness. The humour only seeps in when Michèle is in charge. She refuses to become a victim or report the crime, partly owing to her disenfranchisement with the police. Instead she takes matters into her own hands with a can of pepper spray and a miniature axe.

At the centre of this salacious thriller, which is loosely based on the novel by French writer Philippe Dijan, is the indomitable Isabelle Huppert, who delivers glorious glances of utter contempt in a bold and unflinching performance. She runs a computer game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), whose husband she is having an affair with. Her strange behaviour doesn’t end there.

She flirts with her Catholic next door neighbour, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), and continues to keep ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) close despite the fact that he hit her. She also has a difficult professional relationship with talented games programmer Kurt (Lucas Prisor), whose arrogant attitude in the work place she confronts. As we are introduced to the men in Michèle’s life the suspects are lined up for the viewer to judge.

Verhoeven homes in on the tense interactions between Michèle and her family and friends. She’s cruel to her mother, whom she holds accountable for her father’s abhorrent deeds. Her determination to hold the power in all situations bleeds in to her confrontational reaction to her assault. At one point she breaks the upsetting news to her friends over a posh dinner, absolutely resolute in the fact that she should not be ashamed of her horrible encounter.

Michèle does not adhere to polite social etiquette, instead brazenly and sometimes cheekily challenging it. Set in the run up to Christmas, DP Stéphane Fontaine (Jacques Audiard’s long-time collaborator) expertly utilises the twinkle of fairy lights and the glow of nativity scenes to conceal a nasty underbelly of activity. It’s all utterly absorbing to behold.

Published 21 May 2016

Tags: Isabelle Huppert Paul Verhoeven

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