Review

The longer I consider ‘Elle,’ the more I struggle with it. It’s a bit of a conundrum for me. At the heart of it is this great and daring performance by Isabelle Huppert, the one that finally garnered her an Oscar nomination that’s been long, long overdue; she doesn’t look it, but she’s 65 years old, and has looked like she’s been at her sexiest and sultriest at 42 for about 10 years now. Of course, she’s been playing roles like these far longer than that, which only makes me more befuddled as to why this was the one that enraptured the Academy. I guess it could’ve been it’s director, Paul Verhoeven, although that seems peculiar too, he’s never been an Academy favorite, and I’ve never cared for him either. This is his first French language film, but he’s actually Belgian and to his credit, he’s been making daring and thoughtful genre pictures for decades now. I’d even argue some films of his like ‘RoboCop‘ are actually quite innovative in how they subvert and reinvent the genre picture. That said, most of the time, I’ve just found him, tone deaf, especially when he attempts to make something more erotic. Erotic thrillers are one of my favorite genres, and it’s a tough genre to pull off, but Verhoeven has two of the worst of all-time on his resume with ‘Basic Instinct‘ and ‘Showgirls‘. But that doesn’t seem right either, the guy’s clearly got an eye and talent and ‘Elle‘ is full of some powerful sequences.

Elle‘ opens with one, a rape, that begins first, with a shot of the event’s only witness, a black cat, and then, the violent act itself, and it’s not erotic; it’s dark, loud, and just violent, then it suddenly ends. The masked man pulls up his pants, leaves the way he came in, and then, our mysterious protagonist, Michele (Huppert) gets up and tries to continue about her life as though it didn’t happen. Her work, is as the head of a video game company. (Head-tilt) Oh-kay, and she gets into a debate with an annoyed co-worker as they re-enact the ludology vs. narratology debate (Thank you Prof. Amy Green for that! [Look her up, she’s one of the few college professors who teaches video games as literature and is on the front line of analyzing the “digital narrative”; search for her UNLV TED talk.]) with one of her employees Kurt (Lucas Prisor) over their latest game. Meanwhile, her attacker is not stopping, apparently. It wasn’t a break-in and somebody’s sending her threatening messages on her phone, and later, we see somebody implanted her face over a video game sequence depicting a rape scene and spread the virus across the whole company. She refuses to call the police, because her father is an infamous mass-murderer who, somehow brought her along on his crime spree, and it’s however many years later and she’s still terrified of the incident, I guess. There’s a news coverage scene that, I think is supposed to be an iconic of her, somewhat brainwashed or whatever at that age, but…- (Sigh)

Okay, something’s wrong about this thing, that I can’t pinpoint. It feels like, I can list the facts of Michele’s life, for instance, she’s divorced from a husband, Richard (Charles Berling) and he’s still in love with her, but she’s having an affair both with her business partner Anna’s (Anna Consigny) husband Robert (Christian Berkel) while also flirting with a married neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), she does other some strange behavior, for instance she has a couple different sexual-sorta escapades in her office, one that still seems pointless, and another which makes sense, but is still weird. And there’s a son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who she’s annoyed at ’cause he lets his pregnant spouse Josie (Alice Isaaz) push around, and meanwhile there’s a contentious relationship with the mother (Judith Magre), and the point I’m making is that, all these extra characters, and how she behaves towards them, they don’t seem like they matter; they’re basically just introduced to be new suspects,-, or not even that, ’cause spoilers, she finds out who is behind her assaults and then begins a tenuous, eh, cat-and-mouse relationship game with him,… which isn’t quite ‘The Night Porter‘ disturbing but it’s close at times….

elle

These all seem like parts of something, but they don’t come off as giving the character depth and mystery, as much as they are, things that pop up that the character now has to react to, and the big thing is how strange and disturbing this girl is that she reacts this way. I’m tempted to make a ‘Basic Instinct‘ reference and think of her as though if Katherine Trammel was a victim and not the assassin how she might’ve turned out, but…- (Sigh) It’s the right genre, it’s the right actress, it’s the right-enough director, is the screenplay screwy? That might make sense, Verhoeven’s previous worst films were penned by Joe Esterhaus; it’s not that bad, but who wrote this thing?

(Searches, IMDB.)

David Birke, never heard of him-, oh, it’s based on a novel by Philippe Dijan? Never heard of that guy, what’s he…- known for ‘Elle‘ and…-

Philippe Djian

Writer

Philippe Djian was born on June 3, 1949 in Paris, France. He is a writer, known for Elle (2016), Betty Blue (1986) and Love Is the Perfect Crime (2013). He has been married to Djian Année since 1993. They have three children.See full bio »

Betty Blue‘!?!?! Ohhhhhhhhh. Wait a minute. He’s that guy?! Oh, he did ‘Unforgivable‘ too. Okay, give me a second, this is coming together now.

Alright, now I know who I’m dealing with. So, Philippe Dijan, is most famous in film circles circles for having written the novel ‘Betty Blue‘. Now, that film, similar to ‘Elle‘, was a French film that had some roots in America, in fact, ‘Elle‘ becoming a French film, was basically an inevitability since there weren’t as many American actresses that fit the part and were willing to take it, and also nobody in America would produce the movie since the subject matter is, well, too rapey, to say the least, so this became a French movie. ‘Betty Blue‘ had American funding, and pretty much looks like it could’ve been a David Lynch movie, and is about a novelist who is obsessed with his muse/wife who slowly descends into madness, and that’s the simple description of the movie, which is a three-hours monstrosity of melodrama that thinks it seems deep and important, but basically it amounts to, “Bi*ches be crazy”. That movie somehow got selected over Agnes Varda’s ‘Vagabond‘ as France’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar that year, and even more bizarrely, somehow got the Oscar nomination, basically because it looked the most like an American film. I’ve seen one other Dijan adaptation, another film that isn’t any good called ‘Unforgivable‘, his stories do seem to be about obsession, on some level, and his characters are obsessed, but not in any way that’s captivating or believable. And just because these female characters are doing things, that doesn’t mean they’re fully-realized characters, in many ways they still seem like they’re, reflections of an ignorant man’s perceptions of how females like Michele would behave.

Michele’s a woman in a masculine world, so she’s abrasive, dominant, even after that’s taken from her with a violent rape, so she fights it back, but is still sexual, despite that, but she’s also too prideful/stupid to call the cops, so…. we need for this authoritarian businesswoman to not trust authority, so maybe her father was a vile killer…. I don’t see a character, I see plotting. Huppert plays her well, better than the script is really giving her, but I’ve seen her play weird sexual characters like this before, in great movies like Michel Haneke’s’The Piano Teacher‘ or hell, even in films way s***tier than this one like Christophe Honore’s ‘Ma Mere‘, which is atrociously f***ing bad, but it didn’t feel like something that was too detached from the world of the story it was trying to be. I bought that that outrageous character was plausible, this one I, just don’t. I feel manipulated thinking about her.

(Sigh) You know, I-, I think I have to pan this film. It’s well-made but the more I think about it the less believable and more pointless it feels. Maybe this should’ve been an American film, and it would’ve came off a little more believably ; it’d be a rape drama with a fantasy revenge element to it, but more than that, this film needed a different kind of female protagonist. I’m not necessarily a Moira MacDonald fan, but she makes a good point in her review:

“…You can see it as a male filmmaker’s lurid, repeated depiction of violence against a female character (one who is defined, almost entirely, by her relationship with me), shown in nightmarish detail…..”

I think despite Verhoeven’s other past crimes of horribly-depicted female lead characters, I think I’d blame the material’s author firstly here, but yeah, it’s not that she defines herself by her relationships with men, it’s that the men who created this character, only react to her through her relationships with men. That’s why this movie, ultimately doesn’t work.

I’m David Baruffi, and as always, I have the last word.

elle



About the Author

David Baruffi
David Baruffi
David Baruffi has been a successful unemployed screenwriter for, let's be vague and call it "years". He's got a B.A. in Film Studies from UNLV, is a certified script supervisor and has done a little bit of everything in film, but mostly is a writer. Personally on his own blog "David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews" which is at www.davidbaruffi.blogspot.com,and professionally has written several scripts and stories, for himself, and for others and as a ghostwriter. When he's not doing that he watches his autistic brother most days and he looks like two old puppets.