Thursday, November 10, 2016

Isabelle Huppert Dominates Elle

The depressing truth is a film like this can no longer get produced in America, because there is no longer popular support for free expression that holds the potential to offend. Paul Verhoeven tried, but no American actress of any prominence would touch the diva-ready lead role with a fifty-foot pole. Instead, he fell back on plan B: filming in France with the great Isabelle Huppert. It is probably only a matter of time before the censorious, censoring social justice warriors justify Hollywood’s fears by forcing the film out of general circulation. Honestly, anyone interested in Verhoeven’s Elle (trailer here), the Dutch filmmaker’s first French-language production, should plan to see it as soon as possible, after it opens tomorrow in New York.

Take heed, there is a lot of tough stuff in Elle. One night, workaholic Michelle LeBlanc is raped inside her tony Parisian townhouse. There is no mistaking the violence of her attack, but it also seems strangely person. Having highly compelling reasons to distrust the police, LeBlanc coolly and systematically increases her personal security, so that when her assailant returns, it is more of a fair fight, but the end result remains the same.

Through sheer force of will, LeBlanc continues going about her daily business, dealing with development issues at the video game company she co-founded (its specialty is sexual violent fantasy games) and breaking off her affair with her business partner’s husband. He will be one of several potential suspects who hover around LeBlanc, sometimes giving the film the vibe of the ultra-provocative Agatha Christie mystery she never dreamed of writing. However, as LeBlanc conducts her own private inquiry, she starts openly inviting further encounters with her attacker, which is clearly intended to make us wonder how willing a participant she was, even from the brutal beginning.

It is important to note Verhoeven is not suggesting all victims have ambivalent feelings regarding their attackers. That simply may or may not be the decidedly extreme case for LeBlanc. However, that distinction is sure to be lost on the professionally offended. Once the SJW set understands the film presents rape in a murky and ambiguous manner, they are sure to demand it be censored for all mature adults.

That is a shame, because despite its admittedly lurid inclinations, Elle is an all too rare example of bold, risk-taking filmmaking. Verhoeven really goes for broke and the results are always fascinating, even when they get messy, credibility-challenged, and downright creepy.

Of course, it is immediately apparent this film could only be made with Huppert. Physically, she is deceptively slight, but her forceful, caustic presence absolutely commands the screen. In many respects, her character is extraordinarily unsympathetic, yet she holds us utterly riveted. Oddly, one could argue this is a women’s film, because the only supporting player who can match her to any extent is Anne Consigny as Anna, her sexually ambiguous friend and co-founder.

Elle sometimes falls flat on its face, but there is so much rich text, sub-text, and meta-text, it demands serious analysis. As a sensationalistic thriller, it is also surprisingly adept, but that has always been Verhoeven’s specialty. This is a film that should inspire debates for years to come, but one fears they will be choked off by the intolerantly hyper-sensitive. Recommended for fully informed, open-minded Huppert and Verhoeven fans, Elle opens tomorrow (11/11) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.