I’m a sucker for a French film, and I’ll watch Isabelle Huppert in just about anything. I went to see ELLE (Paul Verhoeven, France, 2016) alone tonight after work at the Kendall. The crowd was well-behaved, but the room was a little cold.
This suspenseful, twisted, and surprisingly funny film is the new one from Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who you may remember from such masterpieces as ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS. Remind me to watch the rest of his films. Better yet, demand the Brattle do a retrospective.
The incomparable Isabelle Huppert (131 films and TV shows under her belt!), who, in my opinion, is really peaking in her career now that she is middle-aged, plays a woman with a dark, dark past to match her dark, dark present. The film opens with her being raped in her own home in the middle of the day by a masked intruder. When it’s all over (and it is mercifully short in duration, although she flashes back to it throughout the film), she does not react the way we expect her to.
Her life continues – she sees family and friends, goes to work at her video game company – with the threat of being attacked again hanging over her. She fantasizes about revenge, she investigates those around her, and she acts out, mistreating family and friends. You will probably repeatedly ask yourself, “Why is she doing that?” Hopefully, all will become clear to you by the end. Never before have you seen a woman go to such lengths to kill her demons.
The sexual politics in this movie are, to put it mildly, complex, confusing, confounding. The internet tells me Verhoeven was originally trying to cast the film in the US, but all the actresses he approached for the lead turned it down immediately. It’s not surprising, and I can’t imagine anyone but Huppert pulling it off, frankly. The women in the film are really strong, but their actions can be strange and often decidedly French. The men are, without exception, utter fools, sometimes dangerous fools.
Certainly this film is open to interpretation. I see it as a film about Huppert’s character dealing with her past. Everything in her life is colored by this horrible thing that happened to her as a kid. She acts in a manner that is unpredictable and weird because she has been warped. Her career is part of this, as is her twisted sex life. I find it problematic that this film was written and directed by men (for obvious reasons), but I also didn’t read it as an anti-feminist film. I disagree with a lot of what is said in this spoiler-laden Jezebel review, which is just too reactionary, and I find the article that it is a reaction to just a completely thoughtless piece of garbage (mothers, keep your daughters away from Eric Kohn, who seems to have not a brain in his head. Did he even see the movie, or just read the Cliff notes?).
Did I mention this is a Christmas movie? Huppert wears one particular shade of red like it was invented just so she could be made even more beautiful by it. There is a whisper of snow, a manger scene, slapstick involving cars, and a funny cat.
If you love animals, and I hope you do, you may want to cover your eyes for a minute when they show the Crush videos – I did anyway. The cat, rest easy, doesn’t come to any harm. However, if you love people and expect them to be good and do good, maybe you shouldn’t see this movie.
At two hours and ten minutes, it is only about ten minutes too long, despite my usual insistence that all movies should be 90 minutes at the most.
It has a VERY satisfying ending.