It’s hard to imagine a more perverse, amoral movie than “Elle.” I loved it, but if you have no appreciation for people who are mean to the bone, you might not.
Elle, in this case, is Michele (the great Isabelle Huppert), a wealthy founder of a video game company that specializes in super-violent fare, with women as the usual victims.
And Michele has plenty of reasons to be mean: Her father murdered more than 70 kids before getting the young Michele to help him burn down their house, with Michele’s ash-covered face captured forever in a news photo. Her dad is still in prison, and she supports her mother, who has taken up with a money-grubbing gigolo who wants to get married. Her son is completely clueless and has married a screeching woman who has gotten pregnant by another man, and they want Michele to pay for their new apartment. Someone in Michele’s office has posted a video of Michele being raped by a demon. And the movie opens with Michele being raped by a masked intruder while her sorry cat watches, without lifting a claw.
But Michele seems to be quite detached after the rape. She goes to a hardware store, buys some strong pepper spray and a hatchet, then goes out to dinner with her ex-husband and her business partner, Anna, and her husband. And oh, yes, Michele is having an affair with Anna’s husband. Michele announces quite matter-of-factly that she has been raped, and then expects everyone to casually resume dinner.
All of this is rather disturbing, especially if you’ve been the victim of sexual assault. It’s not a laughing matter, and director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) and screenwriter David Birke don’t want the audience to take it that way. But Michele is a singular woman, accustomed to wealth and power, and she’s determined not to play the victim.
So when the rapist begins texting her cellphone, she decides to find out who’s behind the violence. And then she won’t get mad. She’ll get even.
Such is the setup for a dangerous game of cat and mouse that permeates the rest of “Elle,” which tiptoes dangerously on extreme political incorrectness as well as amorality. And that’s why “Elle” is so disturbing and interesting. Michele finds out the identity of the rapist, but then she deliberately engages him, trying to figure him out, putting herself into situations where she will be sexually assaulted again, trying to figure out what turns on the perpetrator, then figuring out his weakness.
The movie isn’t meant to be a commentary on rape, although I suspect some people will interpret it that way and cry foul. Instead, it’s the story of an odd, wealthy, powerful woman who refuses to relinquish her power and decides to beat a man who revels in terrorizing women.
As Michele, Huppert brings a French sensibility and acidity that’s perfect for the role. It’s hard to imagine an American actress tackling such a project, although Sharon Stone might be able to pull it off.
Huppert has described her character as “anything but sentimental” and a woman who doesn’t crack despite being pummeled by events throughout her life. “She never behaves like a victim, even when she has reason to do so,” Huppert told a French interviewer earlier this year.
Maybe that’s why “Elle” is so disturbing and perverse. We can’t always be in control. We can’t always defeat those who have hurt us. Nor is it always advisable to seek revenge, as Michele does, in such disturbing ways.
As you have probably gathered, “Elle” is a brutal fairy tale for adults only, with so much ambiguity that it’s likely to drive you a bit nuts. Leave your sensitivities at the popcorn counter and get ready to let your jaw drop.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny and Charles Berling
Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language, adult themes, rape
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor