Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It ain’t no picnic in the park, or anywhere else for that matter. The film starts during a rape. We don’t see it, but we hear the sound of broken dishes, while a cat is witnessing his mistress, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) being raped in her home by a ski-masked intruder. Then we see Michèle on the floor, her breast exposed and the intruder leaving. And that is it. Shockingly, there is no call to the police or to friends or family members. She does not seem affected at all. She picks up the broken dishes and throw her dress in the garbage can, but she does not cry. The next day Michèle is back at work (a video game company she founded) and does not mention the assault. That bruise on her face? It’s a fall. For a while, David Birke’s screenplay is an exploration of sexism and misogyny in French society. There is in the dialogue a double standard and a more aggressive tone and harsher words are used to speak about women, and to talk to women by men, but by women well as. Video games are replete with images of violence and assault, and Michèle herself is being the target of aggressive behaviour by male employees. Then the film settles into a more traditional thriller, although it is the furthest thing from conventional. Dinning at a restaurant with friends and her ex-husband (Charles Berling), Michèle opens up about the rape. They are supportive, of course, but they wonder why she did not report it. We later find out that when she was a child, her father went on a mass murder spree and killed 27 people. The media frenzy that followed, and still occasionally pops up again, wrongly labelled her a murderer. Understandably, she wants to avoid to attract attention her way again at any cost. So life goes on, along with her difficult relationships with her adult son (Jonas Bloquet) and her cougar of a mother (Judith Magre) and a secret affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend and colleague Anna (Anne Cosigny). She gets along well with her new Catholic neighbours, Patrick and Rebecca (Laurent Lafitte and Virginie Efira), and invites them for Christmas dinner. At work Michèle is sent a CGI video of a monster raping her. She wants to find out who did that. The attacker comes back and tries to rape her again. But this time she maims him and uncovers his identity. And now that she knows who he is she still does not report the attack. Instead, she sees him again, and again. I can’t tell you more. The end of the film brought more unanswered questions. Elle is a mind-boggling film for many a reasons. The topic of rape and sexual assault is not usually approached in as casual a manner as it is here. Huppert does not play a victim, because Michèle will not let herself be a victim. I know it is not realistic, but Michèle, as a child, has lived a difficult experience that has made her tougher. And Michèle is not the easiest person to be around. Huppert is totally convincing in a part that would scare off many actresses. She peppers her performance with a wry sense of humour and a deft comic timing. The supporting cast is good, but it is her film. And Verhoven directs without a fuss or pyrotechnics, but with complete control and the precisions of a scalpel. I liked it much more than I expected. But not for everyone.
You should know… Paul Verhoven wanted to make the film in the USA. He proposed the part to Nicole Kidman, Diane Lane, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. They all turned it down. Marion Cotillard, Sharon Stone and Carice Van Houten (from Verhoven‘s 2006 Dutch film Black book) were also mentioned. Fearless Huppert accepted the opportunity to work with him.
And the Oscar went to… The favorite was Emma Stone for La la land. And Emma Stone won.
Based on Oh by Philippe Djian
In French with English subtitles.