In director Paul Verhoeven’s new film, men are brutes. The men in ELLE, a psycho/sexual/sadistic thriller, are cheaters, liars, wife-beaters, and “gamers’ who produce video games that are an extension of their puerile fantasies - bloody and savage. The movie begins with a close-up of a cat’s vertical eyes - narrowed and expressionless observing a violent rape scene; we hear the pounding and stifled screams of struggle, but do not witness the scene until later when the victim relives it…over and over. We eventually meet the rapist, costumed in anonymity who can only reach ejaculation’s pinnacle of pleasure through rough, furious acts of inflicting pain as his launching platform for intense sexual rapture.
Isabelle Huppert plays Michelle - a stylishly successful business woman who with her good friend runs a company which produces wildly graphic, titillating videos - where women are attacked by creatures who invade every orifice of their body with monstrous tentacles, etc - the more horrific the better. Safe from the fantasies that she peddles, Michelle has now become a victim of an uncontrollable psychotic - and like her cat, she does not reveal any emotion, nor does she report the event, preferring to plot revenge in her own distinctive way as she attempts to search out her attacker.
The film slowly reveals the psychological underpinnings of Isabelle - her relationship with a father who was imprisoned when she was a young child for heinous crimes, her mother whose desperate relationships with very young men, in an attempt to maintain her youth, is broadcast on her taut stretched face - the scars of surgery. And Michelle’s handsome adult son, who has not yet found his way and is about to become a father, though still being supported by Michelle.
Sexual tension, desire and intimacy permeate this film. Isabelle Huppert is cool, amoral and calculating, seduced by the power of a sadomasochistic urgency into a dangerous situation which is audaciously grotesque. Walking a tightrope over lies and deceit creates collisions that pull and strain one’s conception of self.
When I left the theater, I kept wondering if I just saw a horror-porn movie or a titillating morality tale? Is Isabelle a victim or a participant? Ethical ambiguity permeates ELLE - and Isabelle Huppert is at the center of every scene - the ELLE of the movie - dominating every moment; a beautiful woman who is an enigma, rarely giving any indication of her thoughts or feelings, as we witness her shell slowly cracking.