Talking Pictures

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Elle, France, Germany, Belgium 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2017

This film has received much critical praise. In particular Isabelle Hubert in the lead role has been uniformly lauded, winning the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes. At the same time there has been discussion and argument regarding the film’s subject, a woman’s reaction to rape. So this is a very effective title but also one which is somewhat controversial.

The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, a filmmaker with a reputation for shocking audiences and tending to a degree of exploitation, especially of sex and violence. The best known example would be Basic Instincts (1992). However, I think that there is some difference in content and tone between his films made in Hollywood [the majority] and films made in Europe. In particular Black Book (Netherlands, Germany, UK, Belgium, 2006) struck me as less than conventional with its study of a Jewish women who is caught between the Dutch resistance and the German occupiers during World War II. More generally Verhoeven has the ability to take genre films in unconventional and unexpected directions. His Hollywood film Total Recoil (1990) is one of the more distinctive contributions to the science fiction genre. This likely depends in part on his collaborators. Total Recall was adapted from a work by Philip K. Dick whilst Black Book was scripted by the writer of the original novel Gerard Soeteman.

Elle opens on an assault of Michéle Le Blanc (Isabelle Hubert) by a masked man in her own home. This is violent and kinetic action. The rest of the film studies her responses which include her relations with an ex-husband and son, her woman friend and partner, a lover, and two neighbours. There are two flashbacks to the initial rape, a further assault and a sequence of what is termed ‘rough sex’. There are two important strands. One if Michéle’s response to the experience. The other, which interacts, is the unmasking of the perpetrator.

The rape sequences are treated in a typical visceral fashion by Verhoeven. And we return to these several times. The violence in the film is added to by a family connection to a series of brutal killings. And both are reinforced by the video game company that Michéle runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny); in fact the video game aspect is part of a series of false leads that the film exploits. All of these lends credence to the argument by Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound (April 2017) that the film ‘crosses the line’.

However, the character of Michelle as presented by Hubert is far more complex. We see her interactions with her friends, her management at work, and her solitude [importantly with a cat].. Her comments to other characters and the more ambiguous allusions lend weight to the argument by Erika Balsom in S&S that the film ‘explores’ rather than crosses the line.

I found myself being partially convinced by both sets of arguments. My feeling is that the film is on the borderline between a serious study and a piece of exploitation. Borderlines are a common feature of Verhoeven’s work. And indeed they are also familiar in the screen work of Isabelle Hubert.

The generis of the film is interesting. It is based on a French novel which was translated in order to provide a basis for an English-language script pitched to US majors. That failed and seeing the film one can understand why. When Hubert expressed interest the film the script then had to be translated into French. This is a intriguing comment on international film production. But it seems to me that this process, and especially the presence of Hubert, accounts for the ambiguous status of the film. One aspect of the plot which I suspect was left over from the US version of the script is the video game company. I found this the weakest aspect of the film: in the book Michéle and Anna run a team of scriptwriters. The latter is much more in keeping with the characters we see in the film.

Of course, Verhoeven has a tendency to want to ‘have his cake and eat it to’. Inflammatory material for the box office, intriguing thematic angles for critics. But I am finally more impressed than disturbed by the film. It is the best of the Verhoeven films that I have seen. And Isabelle Hubert’s performance is riveting, and that of an actor whose work over a number of decades stands out triumphantly.

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