From Robocop to Showgirls, it is impossible to deny Paul Verhoeven’s panache for shocking material. His work may be divisive, but Verhoeven satirical wit combined with often brutal display of violence makes for some widely entertaining and memorable ventures.
In a lot of ways, Elle is both a return to form and a journey into uncharted territory for Verhoeven. Working outside the studio system, Elle is a perhaps his most brazen and emotionally profound film yet, bolstered by one of 2016’s most accomplished and complicated performances.
Center stage is Isabelle Huppert, who could earn serious Oscar consideration despite the film going largely unseen stateside. Huppert’s performance is nuanced and thoughtful, exploring the character’s past traumas with restraint. Much of what makes Elle so fascinating is its titular character, witnessing a person whose cool face often cover her inner-desire to lash out. She’s noble and self-sufficient, internalizing all her pain while still welcoming it at the same time. Huppert creates a lived-in character who audiences cannot help but keep their eyes away from. The moral quandary at the character’s center is fascinating, and leaves a lot to interpret.
Even in a career of great films, Verhoeven’s effort is perhaps his most impressive. The film’s opening assault and rape is bound to shock audiences, but its Elle’s following actions that are perhaps even more shocking. He keeps the audience one step behind, building tension throughout while flirting with his genre roots. The first 90 minutes has a Hitchockian flair, giving the audience many suspects to ponder over. His ability with tone is bar none, matching the film’s deeply dramatic center with successful moments of dark humor. Verhoeven’s brazen ability to venture into murky moral waters that ultimately makes him such a unique auteur. It is a wonderfully offbeat movie, one that plays off our expectations of a typical Hollywood thriller by delivering a blunt and realistic take on the narrative.
What happens after the film’s first two thirds that will divide audiences the most. Elle reeves up to an even bolder final third, but it is not nearly as successful as what precedes it. After having a fascinating study of the character’s state, the film begins to shock for little other reason than to shock. The film loses its larger purpose, zeroing on Elle’s character while dismissing potential themes about the traumas of rape. Elle is bound to polarize in one way or another, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some people just don’t respond at all to this film.
Elle finds its star and director going in equally fascinating and bold directions, making for one of the most memorable and rewarding film experiences of the 2016 festival circuit. [B+]