365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About

19Jan/170

Elle (2016)

Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Total Recall) Elle opens with a scene that even the most jaded person would find difficult to watch. Whenever we see a rape scene on the big screen, we are mortified. Rape is a crime we abhor and, next to murder, the one we find most unacceptable in society. To start a movie with a brutal rape sets the immediate somber tone of the movie and, ironically, a tone that we often get away from. There are so many genres in this French subtitled film. It can be classified as a drama, romance, suspense, thriller, revenge, mystery, and even comedy. I'd be lying if I said I understood every component of this movie without having to do some research for it afterward. Apparently, the older gentleman didn't have that problem as he began clapping as we rolled to credits. The reason I saw this film was because Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, Amour) is a lock for a Best Actress Academy Award nomination after winning a Golden Globe. I think she has a solid chance to win. I think her only real competition are Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Emma Stone (La La Land) I'm uncertain, at the time of this writing, which way I would lean. I wasn't the biggest fan of Jackie, but Natalie Portman did nail the role perfectly. It was dark and dreary and I wasn't sure the movie was needed. Elle was fresh and original and while the content was dark, Huppert gives a career-defining performance as Michele, a woman who refuses to show any reactionary human emotion for the events she is put through. If someone forced me to make a pick today, I would say that my heart says Huppert, but my mind says Portman. It would not be unprecedented for an actress to win cinema's top prize. In fact, there have been two winners in the past decade (Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose and Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as well as a slew of other nominations, including two in the past four years. And Portman already has her Oscar for Lead Actress (2010's Black Swan). While Huppert might be an unknown commodity in the western hemisphere, she has been one of the most revered actresses in Europe for the past 40 years. With no Oscar nominations to her name yet, the one she receives this year may come with the trophy itself.

Oh, Verhoeven and Huppert, what have you done to me? I went into this film knowing nothing about it other than it was French and Huppert was likely going to get an Oscar nomination.  She may now be the frontrunner after winning a Golden Globe. There was only one theater playing this movie in my area. It's safe to say that I went further to watch this movie than I have any movie I've seen before. I wanted to see it before the Oscar nominations were released and driving 20 miles out was the only way I was going to secure that chance. Based on reading a three-line synopsis, I knew that this wasn't going to be a light-hearted comedy and to be ready for something heavy. But I was completely unprepared for what I had seen. And as the movie ended, I sat in my chair completely complexed while an older gentleman (who had also attended the movie by himself) clapped. I've been to movies before where you expect the audience to clap at the end. Heck, this year I went to two in a row where the audience clapped (Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge). But as this man clapped, I wondered what the other ten patrons in the theater and I were missing? Actually, I didn't care about the other ten people at all. I only wondered about what I was missing. But I just attributed it to being one of those artsy movies that went over my head. I could still appreciate a great performance even if I didn't completely understand the movie. But, man, this movie would not get out of my mind. I replayed each scene in my head. I thought of how each character contributed to the overall plot. And as I began putting the pieces together, I began to come to the conclusion that this film is a masterpiece. And even as I reflect on what I believe was the sequence of all events in this film, I could easily be talked out

As mentioned, the film opens with Michele being raped by a masked assailant. We hear the rape happening, but we don't actually see it. In fact, the way that Verhoeven sets up the start of his movie has us wondering if what we are hearing is actually consensual sex versus or something more. When we do visually see the scene, it is in the middle of the rape. The assailant, covered head to toe in balaclava garb has just orgasmed. We see the aftereffects as he stands and wipes some blood off of his hip as his victim lays motionless on the hardwood ground of her living room. He had broken in through a back door to Michele's home, which is actually in a fairly populated part of Paris. And though we don't see any violence in this scene, we do see bruises on her face that she attributes to falling off her bike. I would never make light of rape, and while the film revolves around Elle's reaction to this horrendous event, the focus is not the effect that the rape has on her, but rather the way that she deals with it. It's an event that would traumatize anyone and of course, people are going to act differently to it. But there seems something a little off when Michele calmly locks the back door and cleans up some broken ceramics glass before ordering delivery food moments after. Later, she takes a bubble bath where she casually wipes away the blood that rises to the foamy service in the area between her legs, after that and returns to work the next day as if nothing would happen. I would never say that somebody handles a nightmarish situation like this incorrectly. It just seemed odd that she almost dismissed like nothing happened. There was no emotion. There was no dread. There was no panic. There was no anger. There was just a sense of not really acceptance, but one of which she is saying, "Ok. This has happened. Where do I go from here?" When she finally does open up about the rape, it is to a trio of friends at a dinner on the town and told her story in between when drinks were ordered and when these drinks were brought to the table. Then she kindly moves on to another topic.

Michele returns to work the day after the attack. There was no report to local authorities. Her job, ironically, is the Chief Executive Officer of successful video-game label that specializes in brutal medieval fantasy designed to elicit sexual arousal. Her team, which includes best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), the aggressive, hotshot lead developer Kurt (Lucas Prisor), and young entry level programmer Kevin (Arthur Mazet) and a dozen or so others is not exactly one cohesive unit. Already behind on schedule, the team struggles with the decisions it needs to make. Michele demands harder visuals, shouting at one point, "The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid!" Kurt complains about the game controller, believing that it doesn't matter how convoluted the interface is, it won't matter if game players are frustrated with not being able to move their character around on the screen. Most of the rest of the team is worried about keeping their jobs, knowing that they are already so far past their production deadline that they wonder if their vendor will scrap the project altogether. 

Outside of Anna and Kevin, her team absolutely despises Michele. And, perhaps, rightfully, so. She is ruthless. She is demanding. She doesn't take the time to ever thank her employees. She's one of those bosses where enough is never enough. And, though you don't really notice it at the time, she rarely smiles during this movie and the times that she does seem almost rehearsed and fake. And those close to her know it. And so, maybe it becomes logical for her to think that her assailant could have been any of the men working on her team. Add about ten people on the list of whodunit right away, with Kurt, perhaps, being the leading culprit.

Other players in this character-rich drama include Anna's husband Robert (Christian Berkel), Michele's ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), Richard's new, younger girlfriend Helene (Vimala Pons), Michele's mother Irene (Judith Magre), Michele's adult, but inept son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), and Vincent's girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz), along with their newborn baby. Finally, there are the kind neighbors who live across the street in husband Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira). Each plays an integral part here. What's interesting is that these are the people closest to Michele, yet it's hard to tell how much she really cares, if at all, about any of them. Then there is the backstory of her oppressively religious father who, some 40 years prior to the time of this film, went crazy and mass murdered a group of children. Caught in the television newsfeed at the time was Michele. She has forever been associated with her father for this heinous act. Why she never moved away is neither here nor there. We are able to infer that Michele was obviously traumatized by this event and that trauma has never been properly dealt with.

Without giving too much away, we do learn of Michele's assailant well before we might expect to. And it's here that the movie takes an unexpected turn as we see more into the psyche of Michele and whatever you want to call her perversions, masochism, self-loathing, guilt. There is something here that leads to the deepest character study of any character you'll see on film this year (sorry Casey Affleck, but we understand how your character in Manchester by the Sea got to be the way he did) and might be the key in landing Huppert the Oscar. She's in every scene in this movie so we get to see all of her interactions with those around here. But we never understand her. When we think we do, we realize we don't at all. She's got a no holds barred approach. She'll tell you exactly what it is she's thinking. And it seems that the only thing she fears is getting attacked again...but even with that, there might be more than meets the eye. And while at first, it seems like she's using the other people as pawns in the movie, by the end it's really the audience that are the ones being played. It's not that there are so many twists and turns here, it's just one turn that slowly plays out and one that we surely can't and don't want to believe. But, again, we don't know the full history of this character. We know her in the present and we know that something awful happened 40 years prior. We don't know what happened in the middle other than she worked her way up the corporate ladder in her professional life and had a child with her husband who she divorced in her personal life. She likes to control the situation...most of the time. But maybe she has been in control too much and finds that not being in control brings out something new in her. It truly is in the eye of the beholder because, as I mentioned, I can see this movie through many different lenses and maybe I need to read French-Armenian writer Philippe Djian’s award-winning 2012 novel to get a better picture on his intention with Michele.

Huppert's characterization of Michele is reason enough to see the movie. There is not a more compelling character in cinema this year. Everything she says and every non-verbal cue has a multitude of implications. And the way that she does it so unassuming that you'd probably have to watch this movie a handful of times to catch everything. But there is far more to this movie beyond Huppert. The other characters are pivotal to the film's success and there might not be one that you really like by its conclusion, which includes its protagonist. And in order to accomplish this, you need a quality director behind the camera. And you have this with Verhoeven who has basically made one movie in the last 17 years and has tackled a project completely different than Total Recall, RoboCop, Black Book, Hollow Man, Starship Troopers, Showgirls, and Basic Instinct...pretty much movies all of us have heard of. And I didn't even look into the part of him going from American movies to a French one. Perhaps he's bilingual? Perhaps not. In any case, I don't know if I've seen such a shift in the type of movie a director was known for to one so different. The fact that he isn't being considered for an Oscar is shocking to me.

Sure, Michele is the protagonist in this movie. But as the movie progresses and we learn more about her, she becomes a protagonist that becomes a bit difficult to root for. She is by no means perfect and no one (not even our dream characters in cinema) is. But the depth of this character is tremendous and her motives, while believable, are not always understood. This movie is haunting at the beginning and haunting at the end but in a completely different way.

Plot 10/10
Character Development 10/10
Character Chemistry 9/10
Acting 9.5/10
Screenplay 10/10
Directing 9.5/10
Cinematography 9/10
Sound 10/10
Hook and Reel 10/10
Universal Relevance 9/10
96%

 

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