“Elle” does not gradually ease into perversion and graphic content. At the beginning of the film, Michele, played perfectly by Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert (“Amour”), is sexually assaulted on the floor of her home by a balaclava-wearing man. It’s first shown through the expressions of her cat rather than her own. Following the horrific crime, it seems natural to linger on the immediate effects of it, the viewer expects the victim to call the police or exert further signs of trauma. But “Elle” doesn’t do this. Rather, it lets the aftermath unravel through 130 minutes of paranoia and fear-driven action.
Michele is an owner of a successful video game company that she runs with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet, “3 Days to Kill”), needs her financial assistance after moving into a larger apartment to house his girlfriend’s newborn. Michele’s ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling, “March of the Penguins”), is dating a younger yoga instructor, which makes her jealous. On top of this, Michele is having an affair with Anna’s husband, and her mom is getting married to a much younger man. Needless to say, people are the cause of much conflict for Michele.
Beyond the most villainous and disturbing moments of rape in the movie, “Elle” depicts numerous consensual — though unhealthy — sexual relationships. Ultimately, no relationship feels positive and mutually beneficial. However, it is Michele’s neighbor that causes her the most trouble. Patrick, played by Laurent Lafitte (“Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods”), is wealthy, handsome and charming. Among the other selfish characters, Patrick seems to be the only virtuous and trustworthy person for Michele.
“Elle,” at its core, is a suspense-thriller, but in a convoluted way. Director Paul Verhoeven (“Black Book”) paces the movie slowly, but leads up to critical moments extremely effectively. At every moment, Michele remains susceptible to the rapist, even in her own home. He sends her demented texts and leaves perverted messages everywhere she goes. Clues lead up to the big reveal of the rapist’s identity, and this moment is arguably the movie’s strongest moment. Beyond the story, “Elle” is as much a character study as a thriller. Learning about Michele’s past family conflict and how she deals with being a woman in a male dominated industry is the most rewarding experience of the entire movie.
The movie handles the topic of rape with ambiguity. It’s not always clear as the movie progresses how it affects Michele, and it may seem to trivialize the issue. However, its lack of melodrama is not necessarily a weak point. The torturing effects on Michele are portrayed even stronger as a result of the movie’s subtler approach to showing emotion. Nevertheless, some of the movie’s many complex relationships add unnecessary bulk to the movie. And, Michele’s familial backstory doesn’t seem to add much to the plot. Huppert’s performance, however, is well deserving of an Oscar nomination. She is the center of attention throughout the entire film and lives up to the high standards set by such responsibility.
The graphic nature of the rape scenes should not be taken lightly. Certainly, it’s pushing the boundaries of what can be displayed in a major motion picture. Considering that women’s stories of sexual assault have been covered up and marginalized over time, it’s necessary that victims’ voices be heard.