It’s true what they say about Elle. You just couldn’t imagine it being made in America, especially without having to heavily water down the content and attempting to make the central character, Michèle, more likable. The movie’s dark tone combined with its slightly morbid sense of humor would probably be seen as a total complete faux pas, given the sensitive subject matter, and Michèle herself is just far too cold and unsympathetic to be a successful lead protagonist for the modern American audiences. Thankfully, rather than giving up on the project after failing to get the movie made in Hollywood, Verhoeven simply changed course and spent two years learning French so that he could film the movie in France instead. What we have in Elle is a very European flavored complex thriller meets rape survival story, with Isabelle Huppert doing a superb performance as the leading lady.
Holding nothing back, Elle unceremoniously opens with our protagonist, Michèle, getting violently raped inside her own apartment by a masked assailant. And this is where you as the viewer already start to realize this is no ordinary story about rape. Rather than allowing herself to be a victim, Michèle simply refuses to treat the sexual assault as anything more than a mere temporary small nuisance that befell her. The stone cold and reticent attitude towards her attack is beautifully illustrated in the subsequent symbollic bath scene of Michèle cleaning herself, where a small amount of blood oozing from the area between her legs emerges on the surface of the bath, and she coolly just starts to twirl the surrounding water and bubbles around with her hands until the visible traces of blood have dissipated, like it was never there in the first place. And it doesn’t end there. Michèle doesn’t even bother to report the rape to the police, nor tell her own son who appears later that same day to visit her. More bizarrely, she does end up mentioning her rape to few close friends in completely nonchalant manner during a dinner party. Beyond that, she spends much of the story acting as if the brutal attack had not fazed her in any possible way. The only significant actions that shown some conscious acknowledgement of the attack is her having the locks changed immediately after the assault and buying a can of pepper spray for protection. You could very well call her an ice queen, she’s so cool and calm about her rape that she might as well have ice water running through her veins.
At this juncture, before I forget, it’s important to emphasize that this enigmatic and general strange detachment and emotional coldness that Michèle embodies are all crucial elements for the movie to work and be so damn captivating to watch. It wouldn’t be too far off to call Michèle an anti-heroine, certain degree of unlikability and questionable morality is sort of the point. As the story progresses, you constantly find yourself question Michèle’s motives and state of mind, especially during the second and third portion of the story where her decisions grow more strange and questionable by the minute, and it’s that inherent uncertainty and hint of mystery surrounding Michèl that makes the movie so much more fun as a thriller, as you never quite know where it is going to go next.
Elle is very much a movie that hinges entirely on the talent of its lead actress to make it be bigger than the sum of its parts. If Michèle as a character didn’t work, you would have no movie. It would just crumble under its own weight and not be believable. Thankfully Isabella Huppert is not only able to make her unlikable character click with you in a way where you simply can’t turn away, she makes the decision to watch the movie feel almost perverted and voyeuristic. And even when you find yourself not agreeing with Michèle’s actions, perhaps even wanting to condemn her for them, strangely you’re too invested to the story and mesmerized by her charm to truly care in the end.
While the main plot of the movie circles around Michèle trying to track her rapist down after it becomes clear he’s still stalking her, I would avoid categorizing this as a straight revenge story. Certainly there are elements of that here, but it would simplify the complexities of the story far too much if you would only label this as a generic modern rape and revenge picture. If anything, I would call this a very bizarre yet highly intricate and subtle character piece, one that examines Michèle through a large spectrum of different perspectives and relationships, that ultimately start to make you wonder if she isn’t possibly a psychopath.
The movie, after all, features things like Michèle figuring out the identity of her rapist, but rather than having him arrested she begins a strange and violent ongoing sexual relationship with him, allowing him to repeatedly abuse and rape her all over and over again. And if that wasn’t enough, Michèle is shown committing adultery with the husbands of her female acquaintances, and when she ends one of such affair, it feels more due to lack of interest in her lover than any type of remorse. There’s even a small subplot where Michèle is revealed to be the daughter of one of France’s most notorious serial killers, with the additional hook introduced where Michèle is hinted to have possibly been complicit in assisting her father to commit the murders, which goes a long way to explain certain facets of Michèle and make you see her in a completely different light than before. The movie just keeps going to strange new places like that, yet none of it ever feels contrived, or like there’s too much ideas being crammed in. And that’s what makes Elle so brilliant, how natural everything about Michèle’s insane life feels. I don’t know how Verhoeven does it, but somehow it just works. And it’s incredibly enthralling.