From the late 1980’s into the 1990’s, Paul Veerhoven was one of the biggest names working behind the camera in Hollywood. Starting with 1987’s Robocop and continuing through Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, Veerhoven mastered the sex and violence ties that brought audiences out to his films in droves.
But 1995’s Showgirls ended his run of good fortune. Considered by most to be one of the worst films of the 90’s (it’s not), Showgirls all but put Veerhoven in Guantanamo Hollywood prison. And since 2000, Veerhoven has directed but three films – Hollow Man, Black Book and Tricked.
With any fortune, Veerhoven will no longer take such a long sabbatical after his latest effort, Elle which was nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes and had its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past Friday.
Elle stars Isabelle Huppert as Michele, a corporate CEO of a small video-game design company who deals with the emotional effects of a rape that occurs before the screen even fades in with the open scene. When audiences do get more than the horrifying audio of the assault, we view Michele as she fights with a masked intruder on the floor of her home. Beaten and raped, Michele cleans up and continues with her life. A prior bad history with the police leaves her not wanting to report the crime and stoically she marches on with the rape but a blip on life’s resume.
But as time slowly separates her from the initial attack, it is clear that the attacker is not yet finished with his prey. Michele begins to find her house violated again by the unknown assailant and text messages from the rapist only further the intrigue. But Michele is no victim. She fantasizes about another return visit from the attacker with a more favorable result. And through her emotions she remains consistent in behavior which comes to a shock to others when she reveals the details of the attack.
Making things more complex for Michelle is her circle of family and friends. A father doing time for being a serial murder, a mother who pays young studs for sex, a son who can’t hold either a job or a girlfriend and her co-workers, some of which she is sexually active with, only complicate her delicate situation.
Although Elle might seem like a mystery thriller, it is more of a character driven drama than a ‘can-you-guess-who’s-behind-the-mask’. So much so that Veerhoven reveals the face behind the ski mask early in the second half of the film. The reveal is to both the audience and to Michelle and how she continues to explore events on her own terms is as fascinating as it is head-scratching.
Although Veerhoven has routinely had strong women roles in his films, nothing is on par with Huppert’s Michelle. The film is carried by her strong and intoxicating performance and Huppert is remarkably able to keep us involved and rooting for a woman who is mean and calculating to all those associated with her path.
Events don’t exactly zig and zag towards an ending but I doubt audiences will be able to stay ahead of the smart script in determining what might occur next to our protagonist.
Elle isn’t perfect, but it is perfectly cast and executed. The story will leave most in the cold and it isn’t a feel-good film even if everything does eventually work itself into a nicely bowed present before the end title card.