It has to be said that Paul Verhoeven has form – this after all is the man who directed Basic Instinct (and what school-boy doesn’t remember Sharon Stone’s beaver shot?), Showgirls (widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made) , Robocop, Total Recall and Black Book (good film).
Elle is his latest film – set in France, in French, with French actors and that quintessential French woman ‘d’un certain age’ Isabelle Huppert. I remember her from Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s masterpiece, panned by every critic and which ultimately destroyed United Artists – part of the vitriolic criticism was directed against Cimino’s decision to cast Huppert as a French whore with an impenetrable accent. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, as the French say.
Huppert (excellent) plays Michelle, the Elle of the title, a wealthy middle-aged Parisienne who lives in a big, beautiful house, drives an Audi A4, runs a video games company which makes violent, sexually charged games and has a complicated (to say the least) life and love life. She is separated from, but still hankers after, husband Richard, has a ne’er-do-well son Vincent who works at a fast-food restaurant (not even McDonalds, oh the shame, the shame) and has a highly strung pregnant (only it’s not his baby) girl-friend, is shagging her best friend’s husband in a loveless, cold and mechanical way and is the daughter of a serial killer serving life, and a degenerate mother obsessed with toy-boys whom she despises. So far, so French and so normal. I tell you, it’s not like this in West Wickham.
This Parisian idyll is ruthlessly and horrifically shattered when a masked man bursts into her beautiful home and brutally and violently rapes her. Will this terrible and shocking event make, break, enhance, destroy or excite her and will it bring the other elements of her life into some form of focus and understanding? This is the story that Verhoeven’s disturbing film chooses to explore.
We watch as horrified voyeurs as Michelle’s rape is replayed, first in greater detail and then with variations; is this the same rape or is she raped again and again by the same mysterious masked man? Gradually we learn the truth and the identity of the assailant and then watch, still horrified, as the two indulge in a disturbing rape fantasy (only it’s no longer a fantasy) game (only it’s no longer a game). Or is it?
The film plays cleverly with your feelings and views and you leave the cinema still not quite sure what to feel. Has Michelle become complicit in the violence that is done to her? Is she complicit in it because of the guilt and horror she still feels about her father’s crimes? We learn that although only 10 when the crimes were committed, there is some suggestion that she was in some way involved or complicit in her father’s sins.
It is necessary to give away the ending. Michelle is attacked for the final time after leaving a celebration party for when the latest video game is completed, but her son Vincent arrives just in time and kills the assailant. It is not clear, and I’m still not sure, whether Vincent’s arrival was planned and intentional or whether it was a lucky coincidence. At any rate, it releases Michelle from her demons. Her hated mother has a massive stroke, goes into a coma and then conveniently dies. Her dying wish was for Michelle to visit her father in prison. Michelle agrees to fulfil her mother’s wish and arranges to visit her father – his request for parole has been denied and he will spend the rest of his life in jail. She makes the appointment and goes to the jail, only to be informed by the Prison Governor that he has hanged himself shortly after hearing that she planned to visit.
And so the story is resolved, she confesses all to her best friend, all the loose ends are drawn together and these wealthy Parisians are able to continue with their dysfunctional lives.
The rapist is dead and the rest live happily ever after. Maybe.
I saw this film in the afternoon and in the evening watched the latest episode of Broadchurch, ITV’s drama about a rape. Broadchurch felt like real life; Elle was a story for the cinema. Quite a good story but still a story.