THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Near the end of Elle, one character makes a comment about “good people with tortured souls.” That's a pretty fair summation of what the film is about. Director Paul Verhoeven has never shied away from envelope-pushing material, be it violence in RoboCop, sex in Showgirls, or the mixture of both in Basic Instinct. This time, he tempers his more over-the-top impulses without sacrificing that willingness to pursue extremes. Under his guidance, Elle is a darkly compelling look at what a tortured soul can do.
The great French actress Isabelle Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a businesswoman who started a videogame development company with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). In the very first scene, we see her raped by a masked intruder. She decides not to report the rape to the police, instead taking matters into her own hands to figure out who the culprit is. Along the way, we watch as Michele has a variety of questionable, potentially risky sexual encounters, as well as personal interactions with loved ones that seem designed to punish herself further. Her life, it is revealed, has been filled with pain and anguish anyway, and the assault is only the latest example. A cat-and-mouse game with the rapist ensues, with Michele's quest seemingly about more than just making a positive identification.
Elle is an intriguing film because you don't always know where it's headed. (I left a fair amount out of that plot description.) You watch as Michele makes decisions that are often confounding, but which she approaches with surprising self-confidence. Gradually, the pieces start to come together, showing that she's far more in control of her destiny than it appears. There is a sense that the difficulties in her life have left her feeling tainted, so she believes tracking down the person who violated her doesn't come with a huge downside. It may, in fact, help her figure some things out about herself.
Isabelle Huppert is superb in the role, bringing humanity to a character that could, in other hands, be insufferable or unsympathetic. She suggests a great deal of hurt running underneath Michele's dealings with other people that comes out in different, borderline self-destructive ways. That same hurt provides a sense of bravery, as she feels buffered from the things life throws at her. She is a complicated woman, a quality that Huppert runs with.
Verhoeven sometimes has a penchant for taking his edgy material a few steps too far. For Elle, he grounds the sex and violence by treating it not as something to be exploited, but as something that helps us see deeper into Michele's psyche. To be sure, there are some bold moments here. They are, however, meant to enlighten, not titillate. That ensures engagement, even when the events that transpire are disturbing to contemplate.
Elle saves its most challenging twist for close to the end. It simultaneously suggests that good people sometimes feel the need to punish themselves and that a few of us are drawn to darkness. It's also a critical moment in terms of clarity for the lead character. There are no big epiphanies here, no moments of overt self-awareness. Still, by the movie's final minutes, Michele has figured something out. She realizes that a tortured soul need not remain tortured forever. A person can give themselves a break by saying “enough is enough.” Anchored by Isabelle Huppert's exceptional work, Elle explores some tough themes in a way that has a ring of truth and, ultimately, a glimmer of hope.
( 1/2 out of four)
Elle is rated R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
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