Strange Instinct: Isabelle Huppert spectacular in daring "Elle"

Elle (2016)
130 min., rated R.

Coming from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who has actually advanced with more arthouse fare after his long stream of Hollywood pictures—1987’s “Robocop,” 1992’s “Basic Instinct,” 1995’s “Showgirls” and 1997’s “Starship Troopers”—“Elle” is not a lurid, trashily entertaining rape-revenge thriller as one might expect. With Verhoeven attached, it was bound to push the envelope, but it is more daring, provocative and French than that. Even for a film that confronts such serious subject matter as rape, it is also darkly funny through Verhoeven’s perversely playful prism. Viewers will already know if “Elle” isn’t for them, and while it has uncomfortable ideas that only a provocateur would want to ponder, it’s more challenging than it is exploitative.

When a ski-masked male intruder rapes divorced mother Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), she reacts unusually. With blood running down her leg, she gets up, cleans up the broken glass, throws away her dress, and takes a bath. Rather than call the police and report the incident, Michèle just goes on about the rest of her night, having dinner with her adult son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who asks his mother for three months rent for an apartment with his awful, pregnant fiancee Josie (Alice Isaaz). The next day at work, where she’s a successful co-founder of a male-dominated video game company with best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), Michèle has a criticism when looking at a sample of a new video game in which a woman is violated: “the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid.” Later on, at dinner with Anna, Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) with whom Michèle is having an affair, and Michèle’s ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), Michèle tells her friends nonchalantly that she was assaulted like it’s regular dinner conversation. Eventually, she starts receiving text messages that imply her rapist isn’t too far and might strike again. This time, Michèle will be ready.

Before a single frame has even been glimpsed, the sounds of glass breaking, a woman screaming and a man grunting grabs the viewer’s attention. The first image is a black cat, as it indifferently watches its owner being brutally attacked and raped. Based on the novel by Philippe Djian and written by David Birke (2014’s “13 Sins”), “Elle” is a darkly absorbing character study that questions how one might respond differently to a personal sexual assault and almost invite back that trauma again. Michèle is self-sufficient and refuses to be a victim, taking the appropriate measures by getting the locks changed, sleeping with a hammer, learning how to shoot, and buying some pepper spray. As anyone might, she also replays the rape in her head, and sometimes, the outcome is different.

Isabelle Huppert is brilliant, making a numb, steely enigma like Michèle fascinating to watch and not unsympathetic. She is complicated, multifaceted and even contradictory, playing with her power of consent and proving her tremendous mettle. Her tortured backstory goes deeper, too; her father, a serial killer, has been in prison for thirty-nine years. Michèle refuses to get the police involved with her assault because there’s the fear that she will stir up the circus from her past and the infamy that has followed her entire life. The reveal of who forced himself upon Michèle isn’t that important. It’s even revealed surprisingly early on, proving that director Verhoeven has no interest in purely making a whodunit or a standard revenge thriller about a woman evening the score with her rapist. A true conversation starter, “Elle” is bold, brave and unpredictable, just like Isabelle Huppert.

Grade: B +