The new French film Elle from Paul Verhoeven, his first in ten years, opens in the aftermath of a sexual assault committed against middle-aged businesswoman Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) in her home. Instead of cutting to the next scene in a hospital or police station, Verhoeven chooses to stay with her as she picks herself up and cleans up the broken debris from the floor, almost as if she is unfazed by the attack. While there are some minor signs of emotional trauma, life generally seems to move on for Michèle as she proceeds to order takeout food moments later on her phone.
Over the next two hours, we discover more about the machinations of her busy life: her executive role at a well-regarded video game company, the strained relationship with her meek son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his bossy girlfriend, along with the affair that she pursues with the husband of her co-worker and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). While out to dinner one night, she opens up to her friends about the details of the shocking event that happened to her days previous but she does so in such a blasé and matter-of-fact way that they’re unsure just how to react to the information. As she continues her daily routine, Michèle methodically makes strides towards unveiling her assailant and presumably confronting him for his role in the attack.
By my estimation, Verhoeven has crafted this story as a sort of subversion to the traditional rape revenge tale that we’ve been told before but the result is a distracting mishmash of office politics and turgid family drama that muddles what it seems the film wants to achieve. The core material is provocative and problematic enough to carry along undisturbed but just when there seems to be a breakthrough, we’re introduced to more uninteresting characters or more subplots that ultimately don’t add up to much. It’s a shame that the film is so overstuffed because it does have some salient points to make about consent and sexual politics but the storytelling is too unfocused to make the themes resonant.
Despite the aimless direction, the central performance by Huppert (recently deemed the Best Actress in a Drama by the Golden Globes) almost makes the movie worth seeing on its own terms and gives it a spark that it would otherwise be lacking. Most actresses wouldn’t even think about approaching material this brazen or have the bravery to pull off some of the trickier scenes but she casts an indelible mark on the film with her eccentric work. It’s a sly and sophisticated turn that underlines a character who is fundamentally enigmatic and still vulnerable and empathetic at the same time.
But she doesn’t have the support system that she needs from other aspects of the film to pull it all together. Beyond some of the more bizarre story elements that come out of left field (a serial killer past, various bouts of vandalism and voyeurism), other technical aspects like the rote musical score by Anne Dudley and the dismal visual effects in the scenes that depict the video game being developed by Michèle’s company seek to undermine any progress that Huppert commands on her own. Elle made me leave the theater scratching my head in bewilderment rather than consider the implications of its troubling story and I doubt that’s the effect Verhoeven intended for his film to have.