If I claim that Isabelle Huppert is sensational in Elle, I’d be no different than the consensus that has aligned on her behalf this award season. Ten days ago I claimed that Huppert was sensational in Things to Come, a quieter film than Paul Verhoeven’s thriller-comedy. Had she only appeared in the latter, Huppert would be remembered by few besides the critics who praise her movies when they open on these shores. Thanks to Elle’s premise—a rape victim who to some extent looks forward to getting raped again by her attacker—Huppert may finally get the American mainstream acceptance that has eluded her (and she has perhaps wanted to elude). Thank her director too. A restless filmmaker with a devilish funny streak, Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Black Book, Showgirls), exerts a tonal control over Elle so complete that when you’re putting the move together again in your head you’ll wonder how it could have gone so right. His ace is Huppert, whose intelligence and will are like fixed protons.
The film opens with the rape, but not from the expected point of view and certainly not shown for the sake of pathos: watching is Huppert’s cat, glowering and impassive. Shattered china. Huppert’s Michèle in the bath cleansing herself of the violation—or is she merely cleaning herself? She’s hungry too: “Some himachi. Two pieces,” she barks. Her preternatural calm stays unshaken. Perhaps the graphic violence seen in her job as the co-owner of a video game company has inured her. “When a player guts an orc, he needs to feel the blood in his hands,” she chastises employees, all fearful, slightly resentful guys in their twenties. Perhaps dealing with a mother (Judith Magre) not going gently into dementia — no Huppert movie, it seems, can work without a horrible mom — puts it in perspective. “You always wanted a sanitized version of life,” her mother, who has a sweet tooth for younger men, tells Michèle. Her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) also likes younger spouses, particularly one mysteriously open to the idea of a friendship with Michele. Meanwhile Michèle just likes spouses, preferably other people’s, like Robert (Christian Berkel), married to Anne (Anne Consigny), best friend, co-owner of the company, and, briefly, her adolescent lover; and, importantly, her neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), whose crotch gets a foot massage at that purgatorial dinner; his own wife is a Catholic of such fervor that she insists on watching midnight Mass at Michèle’s after Christmas Eve dinner.These complications are a treat compared to the life led by her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), insistent on staying with a girlfriend pregnant with a child whom Michèl insists is not Vincent’s, a move that does not endear Josie (Alice Isaa) to Michèle.
Despite the plentitude of characters, Elle has the pace and wit of a Restoration comedy, thanks to Verhoeven, David Birke’s adaptation of Philippe Dijan’s novel, and his star’s timing. Every one of the supporting players is a fool (“Your stupidity is what attracted me,” she admits), and Huppert, a master of the blank face, responds to Verhoeven’s reaction shots with superb double takes and muttered asides; she’s a walking zinger. “Would you say I’m tight for a woman my age? she asks a bumbling Richard. Not in her imagination. However, I can’t shake my unease about a film that uses flashbacks to a rape scene for kicks and kinks, nor does Elle get any more wholesome when memories and lusts conspire to make the present kickier and kinkier. To elaborate would be a spoiler. I can, however, dismiss the appearance of Michèle’s dad, a serial killer doing time, as a superfluity, and a noxious one; the film already has enough outré material for three.
Stronger when it unfurls as a divertissement at the expense of the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, Elle also works as a commentary on the options of women in male-dominated spaces. Michèle’s employees so resent her sangfroid that they post doctored clips with her face as a sexual assault victim. Surrounded by loved ones who want her to accept things as they are, Michèle swings back — for example sticking toothpicks in Anne’s meat and getting annoyed at a recalcitrant TV remote while a certain relative dies. Verhoeven sets up this last scene as if it were in a Naked Gun movie, and I laughed at its intended tastelessness and myself for laughing at it. Because Elle is a Verhoeven picture, people get hurt: scissors, chairs, and vases are employed, and there’s a closeup of leaking brains to remind audiences that they had dinner before the movie.
Towering over Elle is Huppert, at the apex of her career, in a movie whose sensibilities and hers are in sync. If the last scene doesn’t make you smile with its perfectly timed joke, then enjoy yourself at Collateral Beauty.