Cinematic Releases: Elle (2016) - Reviewed

When we last saw Robocop director Paul Verhoeven behind the camera, he left America and returned to working in the Netherlands with his 2006 WWII drama Black Book.  In 2012 around the time production was commencing on Paul Schrader’s social media cast The Canyons, Verhoeven also dabbled into the do-it-yourself social media platform of filmmaking with Entertainment Experience but nothing came of it.  More or less, the 78 year old Dutch provocateur seemed more and more on the verge of retirement despite the enduring popularity of his English language work in the 1980s and renewed cult interest in his Dutch work such as Turkish Delight and Spetters

Then seemingly out of nowhere with his first French language film, Verhoeven returned with arguably the most culturally relevant critique of female empowerment in the workplace and eeriest send up of the rape revenge drama since Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs: Elle.  Starring veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert in a role that has already won the star a Golden Globe Award, Elle tells the story of Michele Leblanc, the head of a videogame company (clearly addressing the Gamergate controversy) who one morning is raped in her own home by a masked assailant.  Left battered and bruised, Michele vows revenge but not in the ways you or the film’s protagonist could have expected.  Further still, as her checkered past gradually comes to light, we’re no longer entirely sure what is motivating the vengeful actions of this otherwise angry and embittered woman. 

This will be a polarizing and important film experience for many because of the complicated sexual politics of Michele.  Like A History of Violence and notably the infamous stairway sex scene, Elle is a film that addresses any and all possible responses to a violent sexual attack, leaving nothing off the table while leaving much up to the viewer’s interpretation.  For Verhoeven, gone is the slick and fluid visual style of Robocop, Total Recall or Basic Instinct, going for kitchen sink handheld gritty realism of his Dutch work including the aforementioned Spetters which it has a startling amount in common with.  Despite being lensed in panoramic widescreen, more people will come away from Elle thinking of the intentionally low grade aesthetic of something like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.  

After facing trouble casting and financing the picture in America, Verhoeven ultimately moved the picture to France and redesigned the screenplay to fit the region.  I don’t know how this frankly twisted and disturbing yet oddly funny and acerbic tale would have played as an American production.  Certainly the complicated and for some, unsettling sexual politics wouldn’t have been able to play out without compromise in the manner doing it in French has.  For this longtime Verhoeven fan and casual admirer of Huppert who was and still is one of the most sophisticated and fearless actresses working in film today, Elle makes a strong contender for being among the very best and most daring conversation pieces in both artists’ respective careers.


- Andrew Kotwicki