The fact that Paul Verhoeven is 78-years-old and still making movies this good is crazy to me. What’s even crazier is Verhoeven’s versatility in his filmmaking – from Robocop to Showgirls to Black Book Verhoeven has covered many genres – and with his new film Elle, he’s added a slow-burn character piece. Although the film has earned itself two Golden Globe wins, it seems that not too many people are talking about Elle. But I can guarantee you this: after you have seen Elle you won’t be able to stop talking about it.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) isn’t a particularly likeable person, but she is a successful business woman in the midst of releasing a new video game through her company. Everything sounds great, but it isn’t what it seems – one day, Michele is attacked and raped in her home by a masked man. As Michele deals with her stacks of other problems (family, business, etc.) she also focuses in on catching the man who raped her.
When I walked into Elle, I knew very little about it – what little I knew left me with the impression that this was going to be a revenge-thriller, when this is actually a very complex character piece. Elle‘s most surprising aspect is just how complex of a character Michele is. For someone who gets raped before the title screen appears, you’re not exactly always rooting for Michele. You understand where a lot of her coldness comes from, but there are times where she can get under your skin like nothing else. All of these layers to Michele’s character are very subtly brought to life by Isabelle Huppert, who gives one of the best performances of the year. It’s such a quiet performance, one where she tells you so much just through her eyes. It’s the small details that Huppert adds to the character that make her a very grounded, engaging protagonist. I could understand why some would hate this film because of the Michelle character, but I loved how self-destructive she was at times, how unlikable she could be. I don’t mind following an unlikable character if I understand them and where they’re coming from – thankfully, David Birke’s script provides the depth necessary to do so.
David Birke is someone who I had never heard of prior to this Elle, although looking at his filmography shows that this is certainly a change of pace for him. In the past, Birke has written a handful of straight-to-DVD horror movies, he’s even writing the upcoming Slender Man movie. This is definitely no straight-to-DVD horror film, Birke populates this world with interesting, layered characters that weave into Michele’s story so naturally, creating a cold, unhappy world that you still want to be in. It’s also a world that doesn’t tell you how to feel, which may seem like an odd thing to mention. What I mean is that the film presents you with certain things happening to certain people and doesn’t ever tell you “This is horrible” or “This is so good”, it’s a film that makes you think about these scenes and these people and “Well, how do I feel about this?”. That’s thanks to Birke’s writing of the complex characters I keep mentioning, by doing this he really makes them people.
As much as I adore this film, it’s biggest issue is that it could use some tightening up. I’ve said it before, I have no problem with a movie being over two hours long, but it’s how you use your time that’s important. This is a film that just doesn’t quite support it’s 130-minute runtime. This could have been a best of the year contender if it were just a bit tighter, maybe cut out 20 minutes. This film does a lot of character building, so there are plenty of random scenes of Michele just going through life. While a majority of this is welcomed, there are times where I found myself going “Okay, is this going anywhere?”. Thankfully, it’s not a major problem, as in I’m not saying that whole chunks of the narrative need to go, just snips here or there. This would’ve been a bigger problem if it weren’t for Verhoeven’s ability to get you caught up in the mystery of Elle’s central conflict—who is terrorizing Michele?
Sure, this film is a character piece through-and-through, but the identity of the attacker remains a mystery for much of this film, Verhoeven knows exactly when to drop red herrings or bread crumbs here and there–just enough to get you thinking again. Even when we finally discover who the attacker is, the movie fleshes the dynamic between him and Michele in very surprising ways. That’s another thing to take away from Elle, it’s a very thought-provoking film. The moral questions that it’ll make you face will have you thinking about it days after you’ve seen it. For a film that’s over two hours long and has slight pacing issues, it’s a film that I couldn’t wait to watch again.
Elle may not be the best film of the year (that goes to The Handmaiden for me) but it is still a personal favorite of mine, it’s because it truly is the most thought-provoking film I’ve seen all year. Between the moral issues that it raises and the complex characters, this movie gives you so much to think about afterwards. Not only does it give you plenty to think about later, but it engaged the hell out of me with almost every frame. Isabelle Huppert’s subtle performance is the perfect match to Birke’s script and Verhoeven’s storytelling. This is one of those perfect groupings of actor, writer and director to deliver on an incredible film that I can’t help but recommend to anyone who appreciates good storytelling. If you’ve heard of this film and read this review and it didn’t catch you, then it’s probably not for you. But, if I have your interest right now–seek this film out immediately. Go to your closest arthouse theater, it is well worth your time and money.