Movie  Isabelle Huppert, a tour de force in Elle
21/02/201723:00 Judith Prescott

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is not an easy film to like.

A black comedy/thriller based around a brutal rape and the female victim’s eventual revenge is bound to be contoversial. It’s debatable whether many other actresses, apart from Isabelle Huppert, could pull off such a delicate balancing act.


Isabelle Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven

Aside from the plot, Verhoeven casts an almost impossible array of grotesque characters.These include Michèle’s (Huppert) botox-filled, aged mother; her toy boy lover; an ultra-Catholic neighbour; a milksop son and his overbearing, agressive girlfriend. Michèle herself is a complex character who elicits little natural sympathy. A successful businesswoman who is used to wielding power, she categorically refuses to have her life altered by the violent attack.  

Elle is not a film for fence-sitters. Either the audience buys into Michèle’s reaction to the rape, or it shall find Verhoeven’s cat-and-mouse antics between victim and agressor misogynistic and way out-of-line. Either way, Huppert’s performance is flawless. She is the mistress of cool detachment used to perfection here. She handles the dark comedy beautifully, delivering some excellent one-liners in a deft, throw-away fashion, exuding disbelief with a mere lift of an eyebrow. Love it or hate it, Elle is a shocking look at contemporary sexual politics.


A scene from the movie. 
© Elle / Sony

After a savage sexual assault by a masked intruder, Michèle chooses not to go to the police and it’s life as usual as the CEO of a profitable computer gaming company. Despite the occasional flashback to the attack, she devotes her time to her spineless son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), her mother (Judith Magre) and her latest gigolo. There's also her wayward husband (Charles Berling), his new girlfriend (Vimala Pons) and her own demanding lover (Christian Berkel). There is also a growing fascination with neighbours Patrick (Laurent Lafitte of the Comédie Française) and Rebecca (Virginie Efira), not to mention her feelings for a father she hasn’t seen in thirty years. As Michèle tries to deal with the attack on her own terms, she realises she’s being watched and the nightmare is not over yet.

Verhoeven directing Huppert in a scene. © Elle / Sony Pictures Classics

Elle is adapted from the award-winning 2012 novel “Oh…” by French-Armenian writer Philippe Djian and was to be set originally in the US. Verhoeven himself chose Paris after saying that “no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie”. True or not, Huppert’s outstanding performance was recently rewarded by a Golden Globe for best actress. She has now been officially named as a nominée for Best Actress at the 2017 Oscars. Interestingly the film itself is not up for a statue. After years spent in the movie-wilderness, for Verhoeven fans, Elle is a promising return to form.

This article was originally published on Judith's blog, French Cinema Review.
I have worked as a journalist for 24 years both in London, England and now in Paris, France. I was a broadcast journalist for the English service of Radio France Internationale in Paris for 17 years before leaving to set up a blog for French cinema fans everywhere. I also worked as a reviewer of French films for The Hollywood Reporter and was a jury member for the Prix Michel d'Ornano at the Festival of American Films at Deauville. I am passionate about French films, both old and new, and want to share this passion with filmgoers around the globe.

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