If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, he’d have directed Elle. This masterful psychological thriller has everything Hitch would’ve loved: a beautiful, strong female protagonist with a dark, mysterious past, a violent and sex-driven plot, a cast of characters who make one bad decision after another, a psychotic and controversial antagonist, and a dark, dry wit. The master of suspense would’ve had his hands full with this script. Still, the film is in excellent hands with director Paul Verhoeven. The film is convoluted, graphic, and often disturbing, but it never fails for a moment to be compelling.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Michele, a wealthy woman who seems unable to maintain a functional relationship. Not simply romantic relationships, but with her coworkers, her son, her friends, and seemingly everyone she meets, her relationships are constantly wrought with conflict. Without fail, everyone she trusts seems to betray her, and if not she doesn’t fail to betray them. To say that the characters in Elle are imperfect is an understatement.
The shadowy backgrounds in which the more suspenseful scenes are shot create a tense atmosphere. On more than one occasion, the entire audience at my theater nearly leapt from their seats in surprise. Following Elle’s shocking and violent opening scene in which Michele is attacked at her home, each time that she walks into the house by herself the viewer is left on the edge of their seat. Verhoeven doesn’t relieve this feeling, and he instead feeds into it by keeping the house shrouded in darkness as often as possible, and keeping just enough of the background in view to keep the viewers’ eyes darting around behind Michele, searching for prowlers. A haunting original score by Anne Dudley refuses to alleviate the tension for even a moment during these scenes.
That said, Elle often walks away from the darker tones. Even the discussions revolving around the film’s violence are usually fairly casual. This plays into the almost comedic nature of much of the film. For each time the viewer jumps at a surprise, there are two times that they laugh at the absurdity of Michele’s laid back, almost carefree attitude.This is the element of Elle that is the most obviously derived from the work of Hitchcock. He had a famous dark humor that was often too disturbing for audiences at the time. He famously struggled to get his dark comedy, The Trouble With Harry, produced as it essentially spends its entire run time joking about death. Elle reflects this quality of Hitchcock’s work.
While Verhoeven is better known to contemporary audiences for his sci-fi action films like Robocop and Total Recall produced in Hollywood, Elle seems to be a film more so inspired by a sincere passion for storytelling. It is a product of the thrillers that came before it, but it is also an original and surprising film that dares to be scandalous and salacious in a way that even modern audiences may not entirely be prepared for. It blends sex and violence in a way that almost feels fetish-like and is voyeuristic in a way that will make the audience member feel a little dirty by its conclusion.
Elle is an incredible accomplishment, if for no other reason because any of a number of small missteps might’ve made it entirely unwatchable. It is the culmination of fantastic decision-making and incredible talent. Isabelle Huppert plays this character with such versatility, it feels as if Michele were developed far beyond the film’s two hour run time. In consecutive scenes she can jump from being entirely composed, to young and provocative, to angry and bitter without disrupting her character. The screenplay is flawless from wall to wall, and seems to be constantly hiding more intrigue around each turn. In Elle, Paul Verhoeven has created an incredible thriller which cannot stop revealing more answers while raising even further tantalizing questions.