Saturday 21 May 2016

Cannes 2016: Elle by Paul Verhoeven

For any cinephile, the announcement that Isabelle Huppert and Paul Verhoeven were going to make a film together was among the most unexpected and exciting news you can think ok. Verhoeven has made few films over the last decade or so, after the highlights of his Dutch then American career in the 80's and 90's. So the idea of him making a film in France, and with Isabelle Huppert, arguably the French actress with the most celebrated and diverse career at the moment, was catnip to us all. Announced two years ago, and with some expecting it for Cannes 2015, the film is finally finished and it screened in the official selection this year.

In Elle, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a game company, is the victim of a brutal rape at her home one evening. Except that, instead of reporting it to the police, she engages in a game of cat and mouse with the masked perpetuator who keeps coming back to visit her, all while dealing with a complicated life, with her wayward son, her narcissistic mother and  her demanding ex-lover all causing her some grief.

If we might have had any doubt about how Paul Verhoeven would handle his French film, there are dissipated almost right away. Elle is set in a bourgeois setting that was the default one for the majority of French films in the 90's (those dreaded, navel glazing "left bank" ones) and Verhoeven goes straight for the jugular, in a way that Chabrol would have loved, with a wonderfully accurate portrayal that only an outsider/foreigner could have pulled off. Behind the facade of chic restaurant and dinner parties in well-to-do Parisian apartments lie deceptions, hypocrisy, intrigues and perversions which he gleefully unearths.

Elle can be described as a black comedy indeed, and there are some frankly hilarious scenes, a lot of them featuring Michèle's mum, Irène (played by the wonderful Judith Magre), whose outrageous yet somehow liberating behaviour in her twilight years totally jars with the niceties of bourgeois life. There are also dark touches between Michèle and her masked tormentor, and the weird relationship that develops between them.

However the Dutch director finds a great balance between the laughs and the drama. In case there is any doubt, we are never made to laugh about the rape scenes, as many angry think pieces will probably state without having seen the film. Indeed, Michèle's behaviour remains a mystery for most the running time, to the audience and to her friends too, holding some secrets of her own, and a horrifying event in her past that she never quite managed to shake off.

With Michèle, Verhoeven has created one of the most complex, and interesting female characters of recent years, which is all the more remarkable as few directors seem interested in middle aged women, and I cannot see how anybody else than Isabelle Huppert could have played her. Among such an illustrious career, Michèle is the French actress's crowning glory (and the Dutch director has explained how impressed he has been by Huppert), a strong, independent woman, whose somehow erratic and questionable behaviour after the assault makes more sense as her past is slowly unearthed. Rarely has a character had such an interesting and rich narrative arc, and there is one scene where all the brilliance of the French actress is on display, a dinner party during which, with one chilling smile, she evokes all the shades, slight madness and traumas of her past.

A stunning return to form for Paul Verhoeven, arguably featuring Isabelle Huppert's best recent performances, Elle is a triumph, everything you could have dreamed for with a collaboration between those two and some more.

Review by Laurent de Alberti

Official Selection, In Competition

Star Rating: 

Elle. France 2016. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Judith Magre...

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