Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Running Time: 130 mins
Elle is a French film about a woman who becomes embroiled in a complex and dangerous game of cat and mouse as she searches for the true identity of the man who raped her in her own home.
I’m going to say it clearly: this film is brutal. From the very first shot right up to the end, Elle is an intense, dark and often very graphic drama that doesn’t let up for a moment. However, it’s a display of pure brilliance from all parties, as it features some incredible directing, a gripping story and a spellbinding central performance by Isabelle Huppert.
Before we get into all of that, I think it’s most important that I underline how heavy this film can be at times. Without a doubt, it’s not for the faint-hearted, and at over 2 hours long, it drags you through the mud as you watch this woman fall deeper and deeper into a horrifying mystery. It’s slow-moving, quiet, and hugely reliant on some very emotionally intense dialogue sequences, and is the sort of film that rewards intense concentration from start to finish.
However, Elle is that very rare type of film that, whilst at times harrowing to watch, is an incredibly engrossing and memorable experience. From its heavy-going atmosphere to the emotionally raw subject matter, this film’s intensity won’t disappoint at the end of its 130 minute runtime.
Of everything about the film, however, the one element that makes it so captivating and emotionally enthralling throughout is the lead performance by Isabelle Huppert. Because of her, this film is so much more than just a woman who was victim of an assault trying to find out who did it, as she gives such a mesmerising performance that her character, Michèle, is utterly hypnotic.
On the one hand, her performance does the basic work of getting you as the viewer to support her in her search, even though she may not come across as the most likable person. On the other hand, that’s almost secondary to the character study that the film becomes, and it’s actually her ability to give an often terrifyingly intense performance as a steely and battle-hardened woman that makes for the most intrigue.
Throughout, we learn more and more about the character’s background, and Huppert incorporates each new tidbit into her performance as the film moves along. However, that means the character evolves hugely throughout the film, and the way she changes her acting depending on what light her character is cast in, whether it be the victim or a morally dubious woman with a devilish smile, is absolutely stunning to see.
Of course, whilst Huppert’s performance is exceptional, director Paul Verhoeven also plays a huge role in giving the film its brutal intensity. Sometimes taking on a Hitchcockean-style vibe that’s often very reminiscent of the classic French thriller Diabolique, Verhoeven sets the scene for mystery and unpredictability well, enticing you into the film’s story very quickly, and then keeping you there with an unbelievably eerie and unnerving atmosphere right up to the finish.
What’s more is that Verhoeven gives the film’s emotional power an exceptionally raw feeling. At times, it feels like you’re watching a live play where the characters are able to throw the door wide open and directly speak their minds. The extent to which the film takes that, particularly with Huppert’s often brutal character, is incredible, and it’s that that makes the effects of the assault, i.e. this woman’s world being turned around, so much more terrifying and hard-hitting than the initial crime itself.
And on that note, I have to mention the costume designers here, who manage to mirror that emotional rawness through all of the character’s clothes. It may seem like a strange thing to say, but as we see Huppert’s character almost always dressed in very formal dresses, ranging from intimidating blacks to fiery reds, as well as others who become visibly weaker or stronger in comparison to her depending on what they’re wearing, it’s very clear what the film wants to get across, which I thought was brilliant to see.
Finally, we come to the screenplay. As I’ve said, the story isn’t solely about the woman’s search to find who assaulted her, but rather the psychological and social consequences of the crime. That’s absolutely fascinating to witness, and it couldn’t be achieved without the brilliant writing here, which provides you with very realistic and stripped-down dialogue sequences to heighten the tension between all the characters, but also working in tandem with the often more theatrical and dramatic performances and directing, which comes together to make it impossible to look away from the screen at any moment, such is the intensity of every scene.
Overall, I was blown away by Elle. Apart from its harrowing subject matter that doesn’t let up for a second, and doesn’t even give you a chance to prepare early on, it’s a hugely captivating film that features brilliant writing and directing, as well as a hypnotic performance by Isabelle Huppert that gives the film incredible dramatic intensity and makes for a simply enthralling watch, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.9.