Elle: The Talented Ms. Huppert

*** (out of 4)

WARNING: Some spoilers in review.

Elle opens with an unsettling shot: a black cat stares blankly offscreen as loud moans echo in the background. Moments later, the camera shifts to the cat’s perspective – and from a comfortable distance, we watch as a man in a ski mask penetrates a woman and flees immediately thereafter, leaving her sprawled on the floor in silence. The eerie detachment of the scene is strange enough. What happens next is even stranger: the woman takes a bath and carries on as if nothing ever happened. She scolds her son over his inability to find a job, exhorts her employees at her video-game company to make their games more “orgasmic,” goes out to dinner with friends…and never once bothers calling the police. Throughout it all, the unperturbed expression on her face leaves you asking the same question over and over: What the heck is she doing?

Thus begins a movie that will continually defy your expectations for the next two hours. The woman’s name is Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), and she proves to be one of the most enigmatically badass characters you’ll ever see on screen. By “badass,” I mean the kind of person who, when her mother suffers a stroke, asks the nurse whether she’s just “faking it,” who has no problem ordering her male employee to strip naked so she can check whether he’s circumcised, and who purchases hammers and pepper spray like she’s buying a round of groceries – all, as the movie takes care to remind you, while living under the memory of her brutal assault. Yet unlike with other one-dimensionally tough female characters (Maya in Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind), Michele has a complicated backstory she’s continually forced to deal with. Her father was a devout Catholic who, as she recounts at a Christmas party, went crazy one night, murdered 27 children, and burnt down their house. All these years later, he’s now dying and eligible for parole, but the memory of what he did still gives people a reason to dump trash on Michele’s food at restaurants.

What exactly is Michele thinking in the moments and days after her assault? What’s going through her head when she still refuses to even look at her aging father’s face? What fuels her disdainful, distant attitude towards most of the people she knows? And is there some relation between these different strands of her life? As you watch Michele stride around on screen, you find yourself starting to ask such deceptively simple questions – and as the movie moves forward, she makes sure you never stop. Whenever you feel like you’ve got her character nailed down, she’ll always say or do something that’ll force you to adjust what you thought you knew about her. She’s never melodramatic, never cringeworthy, and never boring: you find yourself paying attention to her every move out of some nagging desire to understand her more fully. In her dazzling interpretation of the role, Huppert blows every other 2016 performance out of the water; she proves that all a movie needs to hold you in rapture is a fascinating character.

This mesmerizing study of Michele is the movie’s crowning feature, but its strength might leave you worried that the overall storyline won’t be able to hold it. Fortunately, however, it does – at least for the most part. We learn quickly that the rapist hasn’t forgotten about Michele; he sends her a series of suggestive messages (“You were tight for a woman your age”) and even sneaks into her bedroom while she’s at work. While we try to figure out whodunit, director Paul Verhoeven keeps us in maddening suspense: we can’t help but turn deeply uneasy whenever Michele is alone in her home at night, even if nothing ends up happening, and we acutely feel Michele’s suspicion every time a man stares at her for a second too long. (For Hitchcock fans, there’s also a lovely tribute to Dial M for Murder.) Yet to make sure we don’t get too worked up, Verhoeven also throws in a fair amount of black comedy along the way. Suffice to say that Michele’s tactlessness makes for some very interesting interactions with others.

For two acts, this mixture of humor and mystery keeps the movie rolling smoothly. Then the final act comes around…and the whole thing falls straight off the rails. Out of nowhere, Verhoeven reveals himself to be the latest director to equate a “taboo-breaking” portrayal of sexual deviancy with being meaningful. Leaving aside how disgusting it is, it turns out to be little more than a rehash of kinky Freudian ideas about the tension between society and unconscious desire that other movies have already treated at greater length. And this isn’t the only thing that goes wrong: Michele suddenly makes a series of baffling choices (even for her), the plotline reels around in circles, and the ending feels rushed and unbelievable. When it was all finished, I felt nothing but a mixture of confusion and repulsion, and the movie lost a star.

Still, this bad ending doesn’t detract from the strengths of the first two-thirds of the story.  Verhoeven has largely succeeded in making a movie that shuns conventional portrayals of sexual assault and femininity without being contemptuous or dismissive. It’s somber but not angsty, funny but not frivolous, moving but not soppy, and thrilling but not cheap. We’re so familiar with the themes and tropes rehashed in most American movies that even the good ones can come off as a bit stale. For me, following the unpredictable turns of Elle, however unpleasant it eventually got, was a refreshing change of scenery, and I’m glad I watched it.

***

Elle (2016)

Language: French

Starring: Isabelle Huppert

Running Time: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language.”

Produced by: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt

Written by: David Birke; based on Philippe Djan’s 2012 novel “Oh…”

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven