Originally published on CommonSpace.
At the heart of Elle’s challenging and provocative story is Isabelle Huppert. Nominated for an Oscar for this performance, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else taking on the role of Michèle, the head of a video game company who is raped during a home invasion.
She is this bewildering and strong character who acts completely against type and against any sensible recommendations. Huppert herself has described the film as post-feminist, and it’s for the audience to dissect what that means.
Michèle is blasé about what has happened, casually informing some friends over dinner. She tightens her home security and buys weapons. Threatening messages confirm she knows her attacker, turning this into a game of cat and mouse.
On the surface, a revenge fantasy is the type of cathartic thriller that sells. Elle is distinctly not that kind of film. Everyone in Michèle’s life is either spiteful, dependent, weak, or corrupt – these characters are given real depth leading to understandable actions, even when your morality abhors what is happening.
Elle will be known for two things: just how un-PC and surprising its plot is, and Huppert’s performance. Having such loud talking points does a disservice to how fine-tuned everything else is.
Michèle’s childhood informs her present, and her relationships with family members are so nuanced this could easily be a family drama. Some have called it a black comedy – and it is very funny. The gravitational pull of a story centring on rape is such that what stays with you is how horrifying it is in its violence, and in its dismissal of the story that we feel ought to be told.
An adult film in every sense of the word, Elle is relentless, unforgiving, and trying. The laughs come more than you expect, and they’re neighbours with physical and emotional violence. At its heart is a performer at the top of her game.