Verhoeven is back. Huppert’s magnificent, fearless performance deserves the Best Actress Academy Award.
Paul Verhoeven has done the impossible. (Whatever happened to Renny Harlin?) With ELLE, Verhoeven has resurrected his career as a first-class director. While he has worked consistently in the Netherlands, this is his first feature film in 10 years. It is terrific! Everyone I have spoken to who has seen ELLE says they have thought about the film for days afterwards.
BASIC INSTINCT was Verhoeven’s massive hit. Let’s assume he did “Drink deep, or taste not the Hollywood excess.” Because after two very expensive box-office failures, STARSHIP TROOPERS and HOLLOW MAN, (the reviled SHOWGIRLS is in a class of failures all its own), Verhoeven was banished from Hollywood and sent home. He said, “Hollywood doesn’t forget these kinds of things.”
Remarkedly, Verhoeven was able to interest 63-year-old French icon, Isabelle Huppert, in ELLE.
You must either be French, or know the French culture, to truly understand ELLE.
ELLE begins without the standard rule of an establishing shot. A woman is being raped and we are seeing the attack. The man is masked and brutally beating the woman. After the assault, the woman, Michelle (Huppert), gets up from the floor and tidies up her elegant apartment. She goes to work. She is the head of a successful video company. She tells no one.
Who could have gotten into her apartment in the middle of the day? It certainly was not a robbery. Michelle has good reason not to go the police. Her father’s parole hearing is coming up and the media once again publicizes the brutal mass murders he committed. Michelle, ten years old at the time, helped her father after the crimes.
Michelle thinks it is a man she knows. On her suspect list is Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), her neighbor. He is married to a practicing Catholic, (Virginie Efira). She also considers her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), a failed novelist with a young girlfriend. There is also her relationship with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend and business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny). Michelle has been having an affair with Robert for months. Michelle even considers a young employee who has a crush on her. Perhaps it is the one employee who is constantly questioning her and not at all enamored with her.
Michelle also has to deal with her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet). He is in an abusive relationship. Vincent is in his early 20’s and works at a fast-food restaurant. His girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaac) bosses him around and yells at him. Josie is also pregnant. They need money from Michelle for an apartment they want. Josie is not grateful for the help.
Michelle’s interaction with the people in her life is hard for American women to understand. She is blunt and direct with all of them. She even castigates her mother for buying the services of her constant companion, a young man. She makes no apologies for her sexual desires. Her sex life is important.
Michelle’s sexuality is at the forefront. She flirts with Patrick even though his wife is present and is not ashamed to be sleeping with Robert.
She refuses to be a victim of rape. There is a tinge of pleasure in the repeated rapes. For Michelle, the pleasure she receives from the sudden, violent rapes, is troubling.
For the reviewer, the tension Verhoeven builds up is masterful. And how Michelle finds her rapist and the way the film resolves all the situations presented is very satisfying.
Huppert is a revelation. If American audiences are not familiar with her work, there are 100 films starring Huppert. With ELLE, Huppert is giving a master class on acting. She is enticing and desirable without be a cartoonish older woman. She is a sly seductress. At 63-years-old, she is luminous. And fearless – she is not troubled by the nudity or the violence.
With actresses always complaining about the lack of roles for older actresses, here is a role that five very well-known American actresses – of an age to complain – turned down.
Will Verhoeven be seduced by Hollywood excesses again? Will he take a $200 million superhero action-adventure movie? Verhoeven says he is not interested in Hollywood and they are not making the kind of movies he wants to make.
Let’s hope Verhoeven is true to his word, however, it may be easy to forget those five actresses didn’t even bother to give an explanation for turning down ELLE, when they make a pilgrimage to see him. Will Verhoeven’s bruised ego need Hollywood’s validation?
Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/