Coming from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, it should come as no surprise that this film sets out to agitate and polarise. Isabelle Huppert delivers a stunning performance as Michele LeBlanc, a rape survivor who turns the tables on her assailant, in a film which turns the tables on the genre to which it ostensibly belongs.
The opening scene of Elle sets the confronting tone of the film, beginning right as Michele is being raped by a masked intruder who has broken into her home, seemingly for the sole purpose of attacking her. The intruder gets up, leaves the house, and we then watch Michele clear up the mess that was made, wipe away the blood and get on with her day. The detachment with which such a brutal act is shown sets an immediate tone of suspense and unease that is maintained throughout the film. It is an engaging portrayal of seemingly bourgeois characters’ capacity for monstrosity, of power play, and twisted dynamics between family, friends and lovers.
The film undercuts the expectations of a rape revenge thriller and takes us through a maze of moral ambiguity and perversion. We are regularly introduced to men who could be Michele’s masked assailant, and watch as she deftly switches from playing the role of victim to that of predator, from sadist to masochist, as and when required to get what she wants. We learn that Michele was affected by an act of brutality at a young age, that she is no stranger to living amongst monsters – and she knows exactly how to deal with them.
Like its main character, Elle quickly shifts register from one moment to the next, going from a psychological thriller to family drama, revenge film to black comedy. When it was over I found myself feeling really unsettled, but ultimately impressed by the sophisticated and masterful storytelling and, most of all, Isabelle Huppert’s performance.
Image: Sony Pictures