Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's long-delayed comeback after BLACK BOOK (2006), a vastly engaging Nazi-melodrama made in his motherland, which catapults its heroine Carice van Houten into stardom and to Hollywood as well. And ELLE, is his first French film which debuted earlier in this year's Cannes, headlined by an impeccably charismatic Isabelle Huppert.
Elle refers to Michèle LeBlanc (Huppert), a middle-aged divorcée, who is the head of a video-game company in Paris (an interesting career choice), leads a quite complacent life regardless of some dissonances, like her ex Richard (Berling), with whom she remains an amiable rapport, is dating a new graduate student Hélène (Pons) which raises her eyebrows mixed with a small dosage of jealousy; Josie (Isaaz), the insolent girlfriend of their unambitious son Vincent (Bloquet), is a vitriolic nuisance, now that she is pregnant, they are dependent on Michèle to pay the rent of a new apartment; then her botox-addicted mother Irène (Magre, so sprightly in her age, almost 90), is too smitten with her toy boy Ralph (Lenglet) to be ethical; plus that she is having an affair with Robert (Berkel), the husband of her best friend and colleague Anna (Consigny), just as corny as that.
But a horrific accident will disrupt the status quo, she is raped by a masked intruder in her own apartment, and with her own reason of not reporting the case to the police (a more horrific back story here), she carries on as if nothing happens apart from changing the locks and arming herself with a bottle of pepper spray. But the mysterious rapist doesn't leave her in peace, and she suspects that it is a personal reprisal due to some workplace disagreement, so she bribes a young employer to investigate her suspect. Meanwhile, she is sexually attracted to her neighbor Patrick (Lafitte), an urbane bank broker who lives across the street with his God-fearing wife Rebecca (Efira), Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke pull no punches to foreground Michèle's sexual urges. An honest take of masturbation with the aid of a pair of binoculars bespeaks the unflinching audacity of the film's stance: we are all libido-driven creatures, even it will subject us to very perilous situations, we still cannot resist the delectable temptation.
After the plot disclosing the identity of the rapist, the guessing game is over but the story veers into a more stimulating concept of why the act repeatedly happens and how far one would go to fully embrace the exploration of one's sexuality (to the extent of sadomasochism and role-playing), on the latter regard, the film is absolutely female-empowering, while the man is basely submitted to his primal desire, it is the woman who dares to challenge the perversity, question the insanity and take the initiative to navigate the course, which cannily imbues the preordained upshot with a tinge of ambiguity (is it a knowing plan of her or an unfortunate happenstance, which makes audience wonder).
The synopsis of the story might sound morbid, but Verhoeven certainly shows his level- headedness to temper it with a comedic bent, mostly owing to Huppert's superb tour-de-force, she is fantastic in her poker-face frivolousness when saddled with the dead-serious matters, and unapologetically affective in the scenes where she is alone in the frame, submerging in her own thoughts and projecting enigmatic gazes, Michèle is a a hard case to crack, so proactive to seize the fate in her own hands, refuses to be sentimental or sympathetic. It goes without saying that Verhoeven has no intention of eliciting compassion or approval from viewers to justify Michèle's erratic behaviour, but admiration of her own unique existence, independent, honest and indestructible. A variegated supporting ensemble adorns and surrounds a sparkling Huppert, notable mentions to Laurent Lafitte, who legitimately balances on a very darker character between deception and candor, delves into the warring battle of a tortured soul and Anne Consigny, who is a refreshing, tendresse-radiating foil contrasting a relentlessly unfathomable Huppert.
Love thy neighbors, but don't go overboard, ELLE is wittily provocative, unconventionally allegoric and intoxicatingly irresistible. Also the film has been selected as French candidate of BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURES, so Ms. Huppert is officially in contention for the increasingly chock-a-block Oscar race ahead, the plot deliciously thickens
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