This long and masterful film from provocateur Paul Verhoeven is totally absorbing, always shocking, never boring, thoroughly thought-provoking...but a hard movie to actually like. It's the first feature from the Dutch-born director since 2006's "Black Book", with only a 2012 short "Tricked" surfacing during this ten-year hiatus. Few would argue that Verhoeven is not an accomplished film-maker with a number of amazing movies dating back to the late 70s/early 80s, but I would guess that his controversial approach to his subject matter and the many (largely unfounded) accusations of misogyny make finding finance for his projects an uphill battle.
I understand that this movie was originally intended as a U.S. production, but a series of A-list actresses including Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, and Diane Lane took one look at the script and rapidly turned away. So eventually the project moved to Europe where a further selection of mature actresses didn't want to know. Enter Isabelle Huppert, long noted for her challenging and often sex-obsessed roles, working with directors such as Haneke and Chabrol, who had read the book on which the film is based and who actually sought out Verhoeven as the most suitable director. It is a match made in Heaven -- or possibly Hell.
She plays a middle-aged divorcee with a highly successful video games company, run jointly with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and a bottomless sexual appetite. We are introduced to her character in the movie's opening seconds when she is attacked at home by a masked intruder and brutally beaten and raped. The only witness is her smug cat, who silently watches as she tidies the mess of broken crockery, bathes, and calmly orders in some sushi. Reporting the atrocity to the police is not even a consideration and one begins to wonder whether she somehow perversely enjoyed this home invasion.
We soon learn that she is not a very pleasant person, disliked by most of her young techy staff, casually fornicating with Anna's husband, masturbating as she watches a dishy neighbour through spyglasses, losing patience with her dim-bulb son whose bossy girlfriend has just given birth to a baby that can't possibly be his (it's more than several shades too dark), and berating her botox-obsessed mother (veteran actress Judith Magre born 1926) who is planning to marry her sexy toyboy. Huppert's is a brave and bravura performance sprinkled with occasional nudity, hard to believe that the actress is 63. She's a very flawed heroine, but you can't take your eyes off of her nor stop wondering how the story will develop.
Halfway through we discover the gruesome facts of her family background, which might partially explain her own tightly-controlled behaviour. We also learn the identity of the masked intruder, but revenge is not what this film is about. She continues to plough her own path, albeit with the implication that a more rational and thoughtful persona is fighting to emerge, after a series of traumatic developments.
Some critics are saying that this movie is Verhoeven's masterpiece, his best-ever film, but I would not agree. I have a lot of time for "Black Book" which was actually in 2008 voted the best Dutch movie of all time by his countrymen and I am also fond of some of his very accomplished early films like "Soldier of Orange" and "The Fourth Man". No longer much of a Hollywood player despite a successful run of 90s movies, this is his first French production (a language in which he was not even previously fluent). The movie premiered at Cannes, not let it be said to universal acclaim, but it is brilliantly conceived, constructed, and acted.
When I wrote about this year's Oscars I said that it was a shame that the nominated Huppert didn't win over the predictably likeable performance of Emma Stone in "La La Land". Having now seen "Elle", I can't say that I'm really surprised. With her no-holds barred performance Huppert does indeed out-act virtually any other actress, it's just that the character she plays is so very difficult to like and by association to honour.