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25 March 2018


France: 2016

Director: Paul Verhoeven                                        130 Minutes

 Cert. 18                     

A single woman, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is raped in her home by a masked intruder. From that opening,  the film corkscrews off in a hundred different directions, none of them expected. Individually, they’re variously suspenseful, grotesque, heartbreaking, deviant, and comedic. Side by side, they’re impossible to reconcile. That’s the idea. It’s silkily, self-consciously chic, with a coffee-table colour palette of aubergine, olive and taupe. And the clothes are straightforwardly to die for.

Is she a victim? Well, obviously. But everything she does is janglingly out of step with standard movie-victim behaviour. Later, she explains to her friends over dinner that she was attacked – “I guess I was raped” – just as the waiter brings a bottle of champagne to the table. “Maybe wait a few minutes before popping that,” an ashen-faced companion suggests.

Selling the character at the eye of this storm would be a treacherous ask for any performer, but Huppert takes it in her stride. It’s a performance of loaded glances and flickering micro-reactions, all expressed with a cool emotional fluency that’s as exhilarating to watch in the moment as it is bottomlessly impressive in retrospect.

Michèle has a good reason not to call the police, which are set out in a slowly revealed backstory.  She also has a love affair with a friend’s husband to conduct. Oh, and there’s work to get on with, too: namely, producing a fantasy video game involving a red-eyed, bondage-gear-clad temptress. Michèle knows this stuff sells, and even asks her male graphic artists to ramp up the depravity, while simultaneously wondering if one of them might be her attacker. 

The office intrigue is one of many subplots that draw in an ensemble cast from around Michèle’s life. There’s her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), her gigolo-courting mother (Judith Magre), the suave couple (Laurent Lafitte, Virginie Efira) who move into the house across the street, her crumpled ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), their hapless grown-up son (Jonas Bloquet), and his shrewish, pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz). 

An extended sequence in which many of these characters come together for a Christmas Eve dinner at Michèle’s house feels like stalling for time – until you twig this spring-loaded, Molièresque extended skirmish for status, and especially sexual status, is the film’s smirking worldview in miniature. This is the moment, for want of a better phrase, that all Elle breaks loose – and Huppert, smiling thinly in the centre, is the keystone.

Robbie Collin  Daily Telegraph


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