Cannes, France —Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is a diabolically gleeful black comedy brimming with sly social commentary and traumatically induced sexual fetishes. It is an exquisite film. The director of such instant classics as “Starship Troopers” and “Black Book” uses Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…” as a launching pad for an erotic suspense thriller packed with thematic material regarding the thin line between sociopathic and psychopathic behavior.
Isabelle Huppert is the only actress in the world who could pull off such an incredible high-wire act, and she does it with delicious aplomb. The ubiquitous Huppert plays Michele, an anti-heroine unlike anything you’ve ever imagined. Her occupation as the head of company that creates bizarre video games is an ideal outlet for her unique set of social skills that tend to involve her voracious bi-sexual appetite.
Michele’s highly polished survival instincts derive from a trauma she suffered when she was 10 after her father went on a neighborhood killing spree that claimed 27 human victims and many animal fatalities before he returned home to Michele whose assistance he employed in burning down the family residence. Her psyche is as pre-disastered as her ego is well defended. Still, Michele is not immune to attack. After being raped by a masked intruder, Michele toughens up even more rather than involve the police. Michele’s childhood experiences with law enforcement have forever soured her from seeking assistance from Johnny law. She’d rather fantasize about exacting revenge against a rapist that she correctly presumes will return for more. Michele treats friends, family, and employees with equal ironic disdain. The effect is dark hilarity. The tone of the film aligns with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s “Carnage,” but has a looser, more inclusive, feel to it.
Compositionally, the picture is exquisite. Director of photography Stephane Fontaine (“Rust and Bone”) provides detailed depth to Michele’s deceptively dangerous bourgeoisie surroundings. Michele’s murderous reveries take on an element of BDSM fantasy that hit dramatically composed high notes of thematic resonance.
It seems doubtful that “Elle” will win the Palme d’Or for its Cannes competition debut, but its inclusion in the festival’s grand arena sends the right message. “Elle” will confound some viewers just as “Starship Troopers” did. Michele takes no prisoners, and neither does Verhoeven in a film that flauts conventional wisdom about degrees of misogyny, feminism, sexual intrigue, and individuality. Daring, ribald, and scathing on every level, “Elle” is a movie that sets a standard that 21st century cinema should aspire to. It kicks Hollywood in the teeth without lifting a finger. Glory.
Rated R. 130 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
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