In all honesty, I’m probably the last person that should be writing this review. Paul Verhoeven’s latest is the exact kind of fearless, subversive button pusher that I typically enjoy from the director’s back catalog of all-time greats. It just happens to be a button pusher that centers its controversial mode of black comedy on rape. Sexual assault is more or less the only taboo in cinema that actually offends me when it’s treated lightly & without proper thematic consequence. It’s likely that I did not “get” Verhoeven’s Elle because of that personal hangup. The film opens with a brutal rape, which is repeated several times in greater detail and subsequently followed by increasingly crueler acts of sexual violence, but asks you to move on and shrug off the trauma as if it were nothing of any significance. Elle vaguely echoes ideas about what it’s like to mentally relive a trauma once it’s “behind you,” having to encounter your abuser in public social settings without acknowledging the transgression, the ineffectiveness of reporting sexual assault to police, and the misogynistic & sexually repressed aspects of modern culture that lead to rape in the first place, but all of those concepts exist in the film as indistinct whispers. Mostly, the rape is treated like a cheap murder mystery, with all of the typical red herrings & idiotic jump scares you’d expect in a whodunit. It’s a paralyzing trauma that has little effect on the story outside the scenes where it’s coldly detailed onscreen and the real shame is that it sours what is otherwise an excellently performed black comedy & character study by leaving very little room for laughter, if any.
Isabelle Huppert stars as the titular character in this glib rape revenge blood-boiler. Michelle is a video game developer who finds herself at a crossroads in her life with every one of her family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Among these faces is an assailant who repeatedly rapes her in her own home while wearing gloves & a ski mask, a transgression made painfully real to the audience as soon as the credits begin. The movie sets up two mysteries in its early machinations: Who is Michelle’s rapist & what crimes did her father commit in the distant past to make her entire family a dysfunctional band of social pariahs? Only the latter mystery is at all interesting, but the former eats up the majority of the runtime, leaving little room for any other narrative to take hold. It’s difficult to get lost in Elle‘s dark, complexly humorous relationships with her mother, her business partners, her employees, her neighbors, and her son when the film keeps drawing your attention back to the constant threat of sexual assault, which is a much less interesting & more overly familiar dynamic. Worse yet, it asks you to chuckle quietly at the calm, blasé way she processes the trauma, a line of humor that’s never close to being amusing, unlike the character-driven comedy the film sacrifices to pursue it. It’s a credit to the cast, Huppert especially, that Elle is even watchable for the entire length of its bloated, coldly harrowing runtime. Everything from Verhoeven’s detached tone to the screenplay’s core concepts alienate me on such a deeply spiritual level that I’m having a difficult time grasping why people find the film entertaining and how it ended up earning so much critical acclaim, including from mainstream outlets like the Golden Globes.
As I said, I’m the exact wrong audience for this film. If tasked with editing & re-shooting Elle, I’d cut it down to a swift black comedy about a publicly disgraced, wealthy family struggling to put their lives back together; imagine an art film version of Arrested Development and you get the picture. That’s obviously not the film Verhoeven & Huppert set out to make, though, and I have as little interest in engaging with their cruelly detached rape revenge comedy/thriller as the film has engaging with its own themes of sexual assault. It’s not that I think rape is a topic wholly off-limits as a cinematic subject. Two of my favorite films from the last couple years, Felt & The Neon Demon, trafficked heavily in themes of threatened sexual assault. I just think that if you’re going to bring it up (and especially if you’re going to depict it several times in brutal detail with a comedic fallout), you owe it to the audience to make sure the trauma is thematically significant. If Elle fulfilled that requirement in any way, it’s safe to say that I didn’t “get” the film on a fundamental level. I’m totally okay with that being the case.