Skirting the line between feminism and misogyny has been one of the
hallmarks of director Paul Verhoeven's career. Films such
as "Basic Iinstinct" and "Showgirls" delivered strong, iconic female
characters. At 78, this Dutch Master doesn't seem to
want to change his tune now, but with his latest film, Elle, he's taken
his brand to a highly original, perverse new level.
Elle tells the story of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a brusque, no-nonsense video game company owner who,
in the opening scene, survives a violent rape in her living room.
Instead of calling the police, Michèle quietly cleans up the shattered
glass, takes a bubble bath, and carries on with her day. Some time
later, at a dinner, she matter of factly tells the table about the
Hated at work and hated by the general public as a possible
accomplice to her father's serial murders when she was a child, Michèle
seems geared to not follow any predictable routes in life. She has
complicated relationships with everyone she knows, including her mother,
who lives for botox and her male gigolo, her best friend/business
partner and her husband, her devout neighbors, resentful male employees
and an adoring one, her less successful ex-husband and unambitious son.
She even manages to talk sass to her cat, who impassively witnesses
everything. In a story where almost everyone is a suspect, you would
think discovering the identity of the rapist, who wore a ski mask, would
be the end of the story.
Clearly, the filmmakers have more on their mind when we learn who he is a
little more than halfway through.
isn't your standard issue movie heroine. She's tough, conniving,
socially impenetrable, sleeps with other women's husbands, and
definitely likes things a little on the kinky side. It's as if her
early life traumas have led to envelope-pushing behavior. She's trying
to cope with the sins of her father the best way she knows how, and none
of those choices are what you would typically experience in a studio
Michèle just may be Isabelle Huppert's best
performance yet. She knows just how to annihilate another person with
her pointed brand of stoicism. Instead of resorting to eye-rolling or
wild gestures, she opts for intense, assured, confident command. So
much of Elle uses dark wit to subvert our expectations.
Director Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct") keeps things visually simple, although his use of negative
space is inventive. But, is this a feminist film or is it deeply misogynistic? I think the
answer may be yes to both. For a film that aims for a type of female
revenge, it also shows a lot of violence against women.
spoiling anything, Elle brings new meaning to yelling back at the
screen, "Don't go in the basement!" Because most of the people around
Michèle exude empathy more often than she does, you're not sure who
you're rooting for. One-by-one, she takes aim at the men around her, as
a way of saying, "My father took control of my life, and he will be the
last man who ever does." It's not, however, the type of revenge you
end up applauding. You may not even like Michèle in the end, but, whichever side of the issue you
find yourself on, you won't soon forget Michèle's methods and Isabelle Huppert's