Paul Verhoeven’s Elle starts with an act of violence so visceral and abrupt that it’s physically sickening. There’s no way around it — this is a movie about a rape survivor.
After her first assault, Michele (Isabelle Huppert) carries on unnaturally calm: ordering sushi, taking a bath, going to work and not telling a soul about her attack until out to dinner with her friends. It’s this calmness that first tips you off that this film is going to be a different sort of examination of trauma.
There is zero sentimentality here — no emotional exploitation of how Michele might feel and zero dramatization of her shattered sense of self. What there is, is a looming sense of dread present in every interaction she has from that point forward with men. And she has plenty.
Michele is a strong, sexual woman, sure of her own desires and willing to make the first move if she knows what she wants. It’s a tension between her own desires and the desires of others that moves this movie beyond a drama about sexual assault and onto something bigger, something more complex.
The movie is ostensibly a drama, but is shot like a horror film: dark corridors and menacing depths of field are all over the place here, and the soundtrack at times sounds straight out of a slasher flick.
There are a few moments when the thriller angle can come across as a little too insensitive, even exploitative. But most of the time, Verhoeven maintains restraint and tact. Even more disconcerting than the thriller aspect is just how funny the movie is.
Huppert is a comedic force — quietly, savagely funny and bounces off the other characters in the film effortlessly. The supporting cast bring their characters to life, making for some truly inspired ensemble moments. Huppert is far and away the most powerful presence, but the supporting cast does a great job holding their own, especially Michele’s son (Jonas Bloquet) and neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte).
I’ll try not to give too much away, but there’s a certain dinner party scene that is without a doubt one of the most consistently funny scenes I’ve seen this year. The ensemble’s strengths move far beyond comedy, though. Any scene where a slew of characters occupy the same space is fantastic: tense, dynamic and softly powerful.
It’s the power of the supporting characters and their stories that make this movie more than just a character study.
It’s easy to view this as a film about rape and the way one woman deals with that trauma, but it’s about more than that. Throughout the film, we learn a little bit of backstory concerning Michele’s childhood. When she was 10, her father, by all appearances a hard-working family man, committed a string of horrendous murders, and Michele became caught in a media frenzy after the fact.
The parts of the film where she deals with the shame that event brought to her family are especially effective. We can see the way this one traumatic event has permutations across her whole life: her mother, first introduced as a sort of comic relief, becomes a tragic figure. She tries desperately to reinvent herself, and Michele’s complicated desire to control the men in her life becomes more obviously a reaction to her childhood.
As the film goes on, it is this original trauma that begins to inform her reactions to her own assault at the beginning of the film. As characters shift and their own intentions become clear, the film moves away from its thriller/drama framework, and becomes a startling, nuanced meditation on more than just sexual assault.
There’s a line close to the end of the film, by a near-background character, that I think is a good encapsulation of everything Elle is attempting to portray: “He’s a good man, with a tortured soul,” the character says.
It is this paradox that Elle is obsessed with: the image of ourselves that we put out toward society, and our true selves, and how those two are forced to reckon with one another once expressed, often through lust and violence. It’s a fantastic movie, one that asks you to consider the characters as more than archetypes, but real people in a real world.