‘Elle’ – A Fantastic Fest 2016 Review

Elle – A Fantastic Fest 2016 Review

Challenging films often pay off in ways that you can expect. You go into a film thinking that the subject matter will be titillating, even shocking, and you walk out with a sense of relief in knowing that you got exactly what you bargained for. That is not the case with Elle.

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The new film from controversial filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven, is an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s French novel, Oh, and stars the inimitable Isabelle Huppert.

The story follows a successful entrepreneur, Michèle, who is attacked and violently raped in her home by a masked man. It is a film about identity, violence, body possession, and personal responsibility, and it’s a fucking doozy.

Michèle is successful in her career, but she’s desperately trying to live down a heinous crime her father committed when she was young, and in which she was partially implicated. She’s also trying to manage her mother’s eccentric relationship with aging, and her son’s complete abandon of all reason as he, too, becomes a parent. When she’s raped, her perfectly crafted world begins to deteriorate. She’s frightened, even though she handles the incident with a blasé faire that is at once alarming and completely intriguing. As she grows closer to discovering the identity of her attacker, her days become fraught with minor disasters, each resulting major life changing decisions that she could have never imagined.

This is Verhoeven’s first film in ten years – and his first ever film in the French language – and this director’s return to form has never been more exciting. He masterfully assembles a complex tale interwoven with extreme sexuality and brutal violence, and yet also a story about a family’s journey together, post-divorce. With these characters, we explore the intricate balances they face with infidelity, raising a child, friendship, and also what it means to be responsible for one’s own actions. It’s also wildly humorous.

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As Michèle, Isabelle Huppert is at the top of her craft. She’s always compelling, even in her less interesting roles, but here she creates a character at odds with herself – and the audience – and yet is endlessly likable. As a career-minded, sexually-driven, middle aged woman with so much grief to bear, her complexities run deep, and it shows. Huppert embodies Michèle in such an effortless, distilled way that you can’t help but love her, and root for her – even when she isn’t being the nicest or most sane person. When you watch Elle, you are watching two masters – director and actor – at work.

This was Tim League’s favorite film at Fantastic Fest, and it’s not hard to see why. It was a close contender for me, as well. Elle isn’t for everyone. It’s challenging, it’s shocking, funny, and, in the most delightful way, bizarre. But its unconventional story is why it works so well. It’s boldly, unapologetically original, and will not soon leave you when it ends. It makes you think, and that’s so much more than most films do these days.