Isabelle Huppert Laurent Lafitte Charles Berling Judith Magre Anne Consigny
The movie opens with a black screen and the sounds of a brutal rape underway, and the first image to appear is a cat with expressive eyes. The victim Michèle (Huppert) calmly gets up after the masked perpetrator leaves, sweeps up broken glass and remnants of clothing, puts them in the trash, and goes to work. Michèle is a complicated woman—as are all of Huppert’s characters. Our next surprise is that she owns a video game business with her partner and best friend Anna (consigny), overseeing a cohort of young male designers. She’s not very well liked, although in some contexts we see her as very charming, even charismatic.
Ambivalence underlies all her relationships—with the staff, with her ex-husband, her son and his girlfriend, her mother, and a lover. She clearly has a mean streak, and when she does things like seek out her ex-husband’s current girlfriend, we wonder what she is about (this becomes more clear across time). In the meantime, she casually lets those around her know that she was raped, does not want to go to the police, and proceeds to try to identify the intruder. She buys things to defend herself with in case he returns, but does not install an alarm system. Further, when she identifies him, she doesn’t take the appropriate action immediately, although she does have her own plan.
We get hints from time to time about Michèle’s murky past, which involved her father being imprisoned for life, and her own picture as a child being published in the stories about his crime. Despite her mother’s urging her to visit him, her response shows she is revolted by the thought. We never actually get a full explanation about her history with him.
Huppert is stunning in her portrayal of the character in Elle, and the film has been submitted by France in the Best Foreign Film category. Paul Verhoevan (Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Black Book) directed it, based on Philippe Djian’s novel, with screenplay by David Birke. My problem with the film is its lack of psychological coherence, particularly in the Michèle character, despite Huppert’s excellent performance. That is, her motivations and actions are so contradictory, it becomes difficult to see them embodied in a single person who is believable. She is secretive, yet thinks nothing of expressing her emotions inappropriately at social gatherings. She engages in highly risky behaviors with surprising people, but seems to be a very good businesswoman. She is calculating, yet overreacts sometimes with little information or misinformation. Her reasons for not contacting the police on several occasions are never explicated.
The men surrounding Michèle tend to be no match for her in the least. Her ex-husband is something of an “effete intellectual”; her son doesn’t have the foggiest notion of how to succeed in life and cannot handle his girlfriend; her lover is demanding but shows no affection for her; and her father is serving a lifetime jail sentence. I’m puzzled about why the novelist and screenwriter (both male) portray all the male characters in such a way. On the other hand, they’ve also created a male who brutally rapes and batters a woman on more than one occasion. Does this have meaning, perhaps? Does it say something about deeper issues between men and women from the authors’ point of view?
Elle is a fine production in many ways—most certainly Huppert’s performance—and it keeps the viewer locked into the story. The music by Anne Dudley and the cinematography of Stèphane Fontaine are of fine artistic merit. But flaws in the script and characterizations detract from it.
Brace yourself; this will puzzle you as much as interest you.