Movie Review - Elle (2016)

David Birke wrote the screenplay. Birke is best known for writing horror films. Paul Verhoeven directed the film. He's from the Netherlands and I can't speak to his films there, but in the United States he's best known for his sci-fi and action films like RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). However, he did direct Basic Instinct (1992), and if this current movie could be compared to any of Verhoeven's previous, it's that Sharon Stone shocker. The opening of that film featured a violent incident happening during a sexual act. The opening here is selfsame. Except, in 1992, it was a woman committing a violent act on a man, which in many ways was very subversive. Here, it's a man committing a violent act on a woman, which is very traditional, so Birke's screenplay, adapting a 2012 book by Armenian author Philippe Djian, has to be subversive in other ways.

Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher and I Heart Huckabees) stars as Michèle, the owner and person running a video game company in Paris, France. She's divorced and has an adult son. She lives alone in a fairly, nice house on what's probably a fairly, wealthy street. The film opens with Michèle being brutally raped in her own home in broad daylight. The story follows her over the next few months or so, as we see how she deals with that incident. What sets this movie apart from any other crime thriller is that Michèle decides not to call the police. Even when she discovers who her rapist is, she still doesn't report him to police. In that, it becomes a twisted, psychological dive and the questions of why become a constant. Sadly, there is never any satisfying answer. Birke and Verhoeven seem to indulge in a high-class, rape fantasy where the woman appears to enjoy that kind of violence. Yet, by the end, the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too with the ultimate punishment coming to the so-called rapist.

Her reason initially for not going to the police is because she's the daughter of a serial killer. Her father was caught and put into prison when she was a teenager, but apparently she still gets blowback for it, even decades later. Somehow, she thinks the police will be of no help, but her logic makes no sense. A masked man beats and rapes her, and she doesn't want to get justice for it. Many women even after the shock of rape don't want to talk about it or go through the legal process, which often results in reliving the experience.

However, there's an added wrinkle. The man who raped her starts sending her text messages threatening and taunting her that he would do it again. He even breaks into her house and leaves his visible semen on her bed. With this impending threat, still she doesn't go to the police. At that point, for her not to go to the police is just stupidity. She barely even takes any steps to fortify her house or arm herself.

The only reason is because the movie wants to build to an even more shocking revelation. Michèle discovers who her rapist is. His identity is uncovered, literally. She pulls his mask off and sees who he is. She recognizes him and knows exactly who he is. He runs away. She's safe, yet she still doesn't go to the police. It makes no sense, except that the movie wants to pave the way for the jaw-dropper that Michèle then starts having a secret affair with her rapist. It's not so much of a jaw-dropper if one is a fan of General Hospital and know the history of Luke and Laura. It's forced seduction or a perverse version of Stockholm Syndrome.

What makes it difficult is the brutality involved. Michèle's rapes go beyond the rape scene in Straw Dogs (1971). Michèle allows her rapist to beat her up rather viciously and then invites him to parties where they socialize like nothing happened or is wrong. It could be some strange sadomasochism between them, but Michèle exhibits no other signs of that sexual behavior anywhere else. It's just a weird dalliance where a woman finds herself attracted to her rapist. It's a shame that the movie treats it so stupidly.

There's also a bizarre subplot involving Michèle's son, Vincent, played by Jonas Bloquet. The antics with him could almost make this movie into a quirky comedy. I can't even begin to make heads or tails of it, aside from being another layer of ridiculousness like Michèle's mom dating a man much younger named Ralf, played by Raphaël Lenglet who gives some full-frontal nudity.

The film premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Isabelle Huppert has been nominated for Best Actress at both the Gotham Awards and the Spirit Awards, as well as the European Film Awards. France submitted it to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. If it gets the nomination, it will be the second film adapted from a Djian book to be up for an Oscar.

Rated R for violence, sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.

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