ELLE, France, 2016. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Directed by Paul Verhoeven. 130 minutes. Rated MA (Strong themes, sexual violence, sex scenes, coarse language, nudity).
Elle is a very uncomfortable film to watch. It has many characters and plot strands, quite complex and complicated. And the characters are ambiguous. And the situations provide moral, immoral and amoral questions.
Isabelle Huppert has been toplining films for almost 40 years, one of the world’s significant actresses, and her performance here is very striking, and she has never shied away from difficult roles and difficult interpretations (remembering such films as The Piano Teacher). And the director is the Dutch Paul Verhoeven who has never shied away from difficult themes either – audiences tend to remember that he was the director of Basic Instinct and of Showgirls (unfortunately forgetting his powerful Dutch war drama, The Black Book).
Of the many themes, it seems best to state first that is a film about rape, the film opening with a brief sequence, made all the more telling because of the camera most of the time focused on the pet cat, but later shown in more graphic detail, and even a sequence where Isabelle Huppert as Michelle imagines her violently vanquishing the masked man assaulting her.
This means that Elle is the kind of film that Pope John Paul II wrote of: ‘…even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.’ (John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 1999.)
This is also a film where audience sympathies for each of the characters can veer sharply from sympathy to antipathy. This is especially the case with Michelle herself, victim of the rape but then shown in her workplace, manager of a company which produces violent and sexually aggressive computer games, urging her team to make them even more vividly confronting. She has a son, rather ineffectual but devoted to his pregnant girlfriend whom Michelle disdains, but trying her best to help her son. She has a friendly but often vindictive relationship with her ex-husband.
Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film is her partner, Anne, a friend since each gave birth to their children at the same time, but unaware that her callow husband is having an affair with Michelle.
And then there is Michelle’s mother, even having Botox treatment which makes her look grotesque in her 70s, with her toyboy and her intending to get married again. More traumatising is the character of Michelle’s father, whom we know was something of a monster and is in jail, the extent of the horror of his crimes and Michelle’s presence as a young child at the time is revealed later. Michelle, as we eventually see, has some propensity for violent sexuality.
Redemption doesn’t seem to be at the fore in this screenplay, although it must be said that Pope Francis makes two appearances via television news, once as he is celebrating Christmas midnight mass in the Vatican, something that the young devout neighbour, who has set up her own large crib at her house, wants to view; and a glimpse of him going to Compostella, participating in the Camino, a sign of some astonishment to Michelle’s son who sees the Pope as an august figure and cannot imagine him with his shoes off… An interesting use of a moral reference in the film.
There does seem to be some kind of peacemaking with a number of the characters, although Michelle does get a last, unexpected, revenge on her father, as well as a grim revenge on her assailant.
This is a strong film, some intense drama with comic moments, but one which asks for a great deal of reflection about good and evil, right and wrong, morality, immorality and amorality.
Sony Released November 4th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.