“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me.” One of the most overlooked of all of the award-winning films that were released this year, Paul Verhoeven’s psychological thriller “Elle” is certainly one of the darker-themed ones. The film is a remarkable study of emotion, sexuality and revenge. The film concerns one woman’s quest to seek revenge against her rapist, but this is not your typical rape-to-revenge film. The film is corrosive, and it tempts you with its sly camera angles and reaction shots.
Leading actress Isabelle Huppert has won numerous awards for her role as Michèle Leblanc, the CEO of a video game company and daughter of a famous serial killer, who gets assaulted in her home by a masked intruder. The very first scene shows her lying on the floor, her blouse open, as her attacker gets off of her and adjusts his clothes. We are given occasional reactions from her black cat who is watching nearby. This is unusually buried by the following undisturbed normalcy of her life. She almost carelessly spills the incident out to her friends and ex-partner as their sumptuous restaurant dinner is about to commence.
“Elle” isn’t a story centered on rape and revenge; it has its mesmerizing genre swing set to outrival the rape. Michèle encounters amusing troubles with her son and his pregnant girlfriend. She, somewhat dispassionately, gives in to her close friend’s husband’s carnal desires that she once enjoyed. Michèle’s eccentricity toys with the audience’s empathy toward her for a while, and the audience never knows if all her maneuvers are just to strangle his sick, savage instincts. She boldly bares her sadistic side on a number of occasions. The guessing game can be easily won the few times Michèle is clueless about certain happenings: for instance, when she tries to find out about the sender of a gruesome animated video in which her face is morphed into one of the characters of her company’s popular video game. The attacker being the true victim of his attacks from the very beginning is what enriches “Elle”’s complicated beauty. “Elle”’s fluid sexual politics help to showcase a film that can be viewed as gloriously empowering. It is a biting portrait of a feminine resolve with sly humor mixed in.
This film is Verhoeven’s comeback film. He is best known for films like “Starship Troopers” and “Black Book” (the latter of which stars the fiery red priestess Melisandre herself, Carice van Houten). Huppert’s performance has earned her critical acclaim, as she has won a Golden Globe award, a National Society of Film Critics award, the New York Film Circle Critics award, the Los Angeles Film Critics award and the Gotham Independent Film award, all for Best Actress, in addition to scoring 14 other awards for this role. She is also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, her main competition being “La La Land” lead Emma Stone.
I believe this film is essential viewing for anyone to feel empowered, not to have shame be the reason one does not act out. As Michèle demonstrates, victims can rise above guilt to triumph against the face of evil.