Isabelle Huppert gives a dazzling performance in “Elle,” showcased at the 2016 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. Directed by Paul Verhoeven from a screenplay by David Birke based on Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…”, “Elle” is sure to trigger arguments about its violent sexual explicitness, a story of rape and revenge, but also a situation in which the victim at times enjoys and fantasizes about the assault.
Huppert plays divorcee Michèle, a partner in a Paris company creating ever-more outrageous video games, who is attacked in her home by a masked man who beats and rapes her. She should really call the police, but she doesn’t. Instead she begins to fantasize about the attack, but also plots revenge. There is also the mystery of who the attacker can be. In this day and age even the suggestion that a woman might be partially turned on by rape can engender criticism and artistic arguments.
Huppert’s acting is so superb that she can juggle conflicting emotions with provocative expertise. There is much to be resolved for Michèle, who brings much more baggage to the drama, as she is stigmatized by her father, aging in prison as a mass murderer, whom she bitterly resents. She also has to contend with her mother and her unapologetic life of affairs. What’s more, she has been involved in a sexual relationship with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of Anna (Anne Consigny), her partner in the video game enterprise and also her closest friend. Michèle has a mean streak in her, expressed in an eventual confrontation.
Other baggage in her life consists of her ex, Richard (Charles Berling), disagreements with Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), her problem son, and not liking his girlfriend, who is expecting a child. There is also the attentive neighbor, a good looking guy named Patrick, played flirtatiously by Laurent Lafitte. There is much to be resolved for Michèle, who ultimately decides to visit her father in prison, but too late.
Huppert dominates the film so thoroughly that one can’t take eyes off her, whether she is embroiled in the sexual encounters, real or imagined, and whether she is trying to deal with and sort out other aspects of her complicated business and personal life. Director Verhoeven mischievously toys with us in various ways, playfully manipulating how we feel, or want to feel, as the erotic tale unfolds. “Elle” is one of the most unusual and daring films of the year, with a performance sure to be memorable in Hupeprt’s long and distinguished career. A Sony Pcitures Classics release. Reviewed November 11, 2016.