Content Warning: Rape mentioned
Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, Elle, is as controversial as they come. Carried by the immense talent of Isabelle Huppert, this revenge-thriller-cum-black-comedy is an utterly bizarre amalgamation of genres that, in theory, should never be combined.
The film follows Michèle (Huppert), sophisticated co-founder of a successful video game company, who – in the opening scene – is the victim of a violent sexual assault. When, after the attack, Michèle calmly tidies up and nonchalantly resumes daily life, any preconceived assumption of what might follow such an opening is abruptly distorted. Her unexpected unresponsiveness to such a serious, violent bodily violation sets the precedent of unpredictability that progressively spirals as Michèle pursues her assailant. Whilst deeply disturbing, this film’s most shocking characteristic is its humour. With satirical wit and a smattering of sequences that appear almost farcical, Verhoeven seems to have created a new genre that attempts to combine these supposedly ill-matched elements without producing something overwhelmingly repugnant.
It is unsurprising that Huppert was Academy Award nominated for her performance as Michèle, and it seems entirely inconceivable that anyone other than her could successfully undertake such a role. However, it is not without reservations that praise can be attributed to this film as a whole. Long after the credits have rolled, a lingering sense of discomfort concerning the film’s handling of delicate subject matter remains. Juxtaposing rape with comedy, one begins to question if, in doing so, it is in fact trivialising and reducing the gravity of this traumatic experience for real life victims of sexual assault. Is Michèle’s refusal to go to the police after being attacked setting a harmful example for other victims – surely women should be encouraged to seek assistance in the aftermath of such an event? Or does the surreal nature of the film perhaps rule out any real-life relatability?
Controversy over Verhoeven’s approach to this issue is entirely well-founded but it is ultimately the flawless leading performance that secures this film’s success. Elle is undeniably gripping, and Huppert sincerely deserves every commendation for her outstanding performance.
Image: Indie NL