There is no tiptoeing around the subject matter of Elle, a study into the ramifications of sexual violence seen through a particularly perverse lens. This lens is of essentially three people: the central character Michèle, Isabelle Huppert as the actress that plays her, and the director Paul Verhoeven. Together, the two collaborators create an indelible and often frightening world filled with constant paranoia and even more black comedy, all while the mystery—surrounding both the identity of the attacker and Michèle’s motivations—moves further and further along, culminating in a place both completely logical and totally unexpected.
In the first of many salvos, Elle quite literally opens with the sounds of Michèle being raped in her home by a masked assailant, who leaves behind a scene filled with broken objects. Michèle, however, demonstrates she is no mere object, quickly cleaning up the mess and ordering sushi in a manner that both feels like a subversion and a natural extension of the personality that Huppert has already crafted, almost entirely nonverbally. Interestingly enough, Elle remains consistently nervy, even utilizing a scene like one where Michèle bathes for maximum effect, as blood appears under the suds and she stares before quickly wiping it away.
Of course, it is absurd to distill a film like Elle into its inciting incident, no matter how traumatic it is (as it proves to be to a certain degree for Michèle, who flashes back to the actual encounter and the audience sees the attack in graphic but never gratuitous detail), and her everyday life proves to be just as key to the movie’s deliberately off-putting mood. She works as the CEO of a video game studio that produces games that seem more akin to porn in many ways, and the film delves into the multiple fragmented parts of Michèle’s life, from her ex-husband to her affair with her best friend’s (and coworker’s) husband, to her strained relationship with her mother as a result of her father’s imprisonment for murder (that Michèle may or may not have participated in). The rape and the mysterious identity of the rapist, of course, hangs over all of this, as Michèle starts to suspect every male around her, including her ex-husband, her neighbor, and several of her co-workers, and much of the dissonance is in how calm and collected Michèle seems to be; if her other two films released this year (Things to Come and Valley of Love) featured a more tender side of her than seen in the past, this is her at her most imperious and cold, which of course allows the black comedy to flourish all the more, as David Birke’s impeccable screenplay strings a series of biting remarks and absurd events together that do little to dispel the feeling of dread.
Eventually, of course, the identity of the attacker is revealed in shocking fashion, but Verhoeven chooses to continue on for a good portion of time, as Elle becomes more and more perverse to the very end. Perhaps most provocatively, it ends on a note that feels both conclusive and totally ambiguous; Verhoeven and Huppert leave it unclear whether Michèle has really changed at all, even after the traumatic events. Nevertheless, Elle is a roller-coaster ride into the twisted psychology of more than just its protagonists, but the grace, humor, and tension with which it is created is truly remarkable on practically every level.