Elle opens on the immediate aftermath of a rape. More specifically, Paul Verhoeven’s film opens on protagonist Elle (Isabelle Huppert) cleaning up afterwards as a means of hiding the crime’s existence. Her nonchalance over the issue becomes an anomaly. “I guess I was raped” is how she breaks the news to her closest friends. The police are never involved.
Yet she prepares herself for another attack. She sleeps with a hammer by her pillow. She purchases pepper spray and a hatchet.
Elle is a slow-burn thriller about the nature of power. Elle’s character is introduced as a bifurcated one, trapped between a desperation to unlock the mystery of who attacked her and a desire to maintain a level of normalcy in her public life. As she progresses in this fashion, the nature of her various relationships becomes centered on subverting repressed-oppressed dynamics.
The complexity of Elle as a character is fascinating in its own right without the added plot development of a vicious stalker. This plot, while disturbed and incendiary, is a starting fuse that continues perhaps too far past its usefulness. Elle is about Elle; the rape fantasy subplot is an overblown means of getting inside the mind of the otherwise unwelcoming protagonist.
Every relationship in the film is strained by something, even if that thing is left unsaid. In a way, the network of characters in Elle’s life are a menagerie of antagonists. These nodes first come together in a fantastically filmed dinner sequence, but this is by no means the end of the psychological torment that Elle unsympathetically shirks in her pursuit of dominance over her own life.
With Elle, Verhoeven graduates from the “erotic thriller” of Basic Instinct to a more mature, by-no-means erotic sex thriller. While it does wallow in its own demented circulatory system of sexual psychology, Verhoeven never lets the film feel exploitative. The film is careful as much as it is cruel.
Huppert’s driving performance is spellbinding, taking an already complicated character and giving it nooks and crannies of further depth with something as simple as an inflection or an exasperated huff. She is the cause for the film’s success, an enrapturing tour de force of understatement. Despite the character’s neglect to express emotion, the psychological layers that present themselves through Huppert’s performance is means for celebration.
Huppert carries the film through to the end, demonstrating a veteran understanding of performance that is unparalleled. The bleak humor by which Verhoeven presents the narrative allows for Huppert to truly shine.
Elle hinges its success on its eponymous character, and that is mainly all that it needs. The other characters are mere pawns in a game of unconscious chess that Elle plays, in which she takes a victim scenario and finesses it into a position of power in the rape-revenge tradition.
The film is, perhaps in the most subtle way ever conceived, a rape-revenge film. While the genre almost always skews toward the questionably gratuitous, Elle presents a complex and unique understanding of the human psyche post-trauma.
Instead of a tired and unrealistic binary, power politics are a fluid presence that constantly threaten to shift trajectories, creating a film that is tense and exciting in spite of its deliberate plotting. The film is a nuanced and unsettling approach to the characterization of a victim taking control of various oppressing forces in her life. It is the best rape-revenge film since Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)