Arts Review, Movies
Paul Verhoeven, director
David Birke, script based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Michele LeBlanc), Christian Berkel (Robert), Anne Consigny (Anna), Virginie Efira (Rebecca) Laurent Lafitte (Patrick), Alice Isaaz (Josie), Judith Magre (Irene)
If there’s an actress in contemporary cinema, who seems incapable of making a misstep, it must be Isabelle Huppert. She’s been starring in films since the ‘70s, working with an impressive A-list of directors: Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Bertrand Tavernier, the Taviani brothers, Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Rithy Panh, Benoit Jacquot, etc, etc. Huppert has won the best actress award at Cannes twice; she’s also garnered the BAFTA, England’s highest prize, two Volpi Cups in Venice; an award in Berlin, and been nominated for 15 Cesar prizes (France’s highest commendation), winning it once. She has great presence and can play a very wide range of roles convincingly.
Still, her star turn in Paul Verhoeven’s film Elle, is an unexpected delight. Huppert plays Michele, the toughest of tough cookies, who survives—and almost seems to relish–the travails she has to endure. The film opens with the sounds (but not the visuals) of Michele being raped. She accepts the rape with equanimity, cleaning away her damaged wine glasses, having a bath, ordering food and, the next day, checking for sexually transmitted viruses. Michele doesn’t call the police—and we soon learn why.
Her father was a murderer of children and when he was arrested, the young Michele was there, photographed in a way that made her look like his accomplice. This burden has been her albatross throughout her life and but she has endured the abuse and ended up becoming a big success as the head of a very violent line of video games.
Recounting Michele’s tale, one would suppose that Elle is impossibly grim but thanks to the controversial director Paul Verhoeven and Huppert, it’s not. Verhoeven’s career in Holland and the United States has included acclaimed films like the Holocaust drama The Black Book, the effective sci-fi film Total Recall and World War Two Dutch resistance thriller Soldier of Orange. But he’s also made two of the most divisive films in Hollywood history: Showgirls and Basic Instinct. He’s been accused of being a misogynist and a very crass character.
Maybe it’s simply that Verhoeven has mellowed but his treatment of Huppert and her character Michele is ingenious. Clearly, the film’s perspective is weighted towards her. And she’s so tough, it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny at times. Michele doesn’t censor herself at all. She sleeps with her best friend’s husband, continually berates her mother and has major issues with her former husband, who still wants to be her friend.
Huppert sails through the proceedings, head held high. She refuses to be a victim and is so outrageous that we can’t help but admire her.
Elle is a triumph for Huppert and a shocking comeback for its director.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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