For his first feature film in a decade, Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) originally intended to shoot in Boston and had a long list of famous actresses (including Nicole Kidman) he wanted to star. Instead, he found it impossible to find financing or an actress to take on the lead role in the United States. He moved on to France and teamed up with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert. From there, one of the year’s most controversial films was born.
At 63, Huppert is no stranger to taboo subjects on film – she’s portrayed a sadomasochist in “The Piano Teacher” and had an incestuous relationship in “Ma Mere.” It’s safe to say that nothing she’s done before has inspired as many “hot takes” as her role here as Michèle Leblanc, a successful businesswoman who operates a video game development company with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny).
One afternoon at home, she is the victim of a brutal rape. The man attacks her and flees the scene, but continues to follow-up with threats via text message. Michèle does not contact the police or report the crime in any capacity. She changes her locks and has an STD test, but otherwise takes the case on herself. She begins to replay the incident over and over again in her mind, each time changing the situation slightly until, in one flashback, she is successful in beating the attacker to death. From here on out, she begins to reinforce herself by buying pepper spray and heading to a gun range to learn how to properly shoot.
While it appears as though the movie is now headed directly into rape-revenge territory, it actually shifts into something much darker and subversive. It’s true that she remains focused on finding out who attacked her, but once the man is unmasked she continually puts herself in situations to be alone with him. It’s hard to imagine that Verhoeven ever really thought he could get this particular movie made in the States. As is, it feels very, very French. The fact that her character is raped multiple times throughout the film, never mind the implications behind those repeated assaults, will undoubtedly be difficult for some viewers to wrap their heads around.
There are multiple storylines threaded throughout the 130-minute running time, some more complicated than others. Michèle’s relationships with her son and mother are strained, but we also learn that she’s never gone to visit her father in prison, where he’s been for nearly 40 years. Her own identity has been partially wrapped up in his, thanks to a chilling photo taken when she was 10 after her father had just committed a string of mass murders. As these little portions of backstory unfold, we get a better sense of her slightly twisted frame of mind.
Huppert is the lifeblood of this film and it is one of her most memorable (and difficult) performances. I cannot think of another actress who could have taken on such an unlikeable and boldly vulnerable character and given it the same complexity and power.
“Elle” screens again at Fantastic Fest on Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. Sony Pictures Classics will open the film in New York on November 11 and it will likely appear in Austin this December.