Thursday 27 October 2016

Paul Verhoeven's Elle is provocative, outrageous and horribly timely (The London Film Festival review Part 1)

The British Film Festival: Twelve days of movie heaven

Please note: This article contains spoilers.

Two-hundred-and-forty-five movies, spread over 12 days and 14 cinemas. Unless you're rich, have a press pass or rather too much time on your hands, you'll struggle to do anything more than scratch the surface of the cinematic riches on show at the BFI London Film Festival, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. And scratch the surface is pretty much all I did, seeing seven films over four days in the capital.

My personal highlight was Elle WWWW, a powerful but provocative black comedy-cum-thriller from veteran Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Total Recall). Isabelle Huppert – ubiquitous this year in the likes of Valley Of Love, Things To Come and Souvenir – is Michèle Leblanc, the wealthy owner of a video game company. We first meet her when she is being violently sexually assaulted in her Paris home. After her ordeal ends, she doesn't call the police, she sweeps up broken dishes, has a bath and continues with her life almost as if nothing has happened.

The first her friends and family know of the attack is when, in one of the film's most jaw-dropping scenes, she casually mentions it over dinner in a restaurant. Michèle's life and past are complicated. Her company is in the process of producing a video game featuring a monstrous troll character who violates young women with its tentacles (she criticises the designers for failing to make it extreme enough). Then there's the fact her father is a notorious mass murderer and that she, as a 10-year-old, was implicated in his crimes but never charged. Oh, and she's having an affair with the husband of her best friend/business partner. On second thoughts, perhaps 'complicated' doesn't even begin to cover it.

Despite the assault and the fact her attacker is sending texts and seemingly able to break into her home at will, Michèle makes little effort to change her schedule or living arrangements. In fact, she takes more and more outrageous risks with her safety, turning the situation into a very dangerous game, which only intensifies once she discovers the identity of her rapist. It's at this point I can see people getting upset because rather than outing him or calling the police, the pair commence a bizarre relationship of sorts, with Michèle seeming to take masochistic pleasure from further assaults ('seeming' is a very important word here).

Shock and awe: Elle is multi-faceted and rewarding

I have a horrible feeling that, in some quarters, Elle is going to be reduced to the "LOL rape" movie with critics and commentators bringing up Verhoeven's past as the director of titillation fests such as Basic Instinct and Show Girls in an attempt to skewer his motivation for making it. And that would be a great shame because the film - adapted from Philippe Djian's French novel Oh... - is so much more multi-faceted and rewarding than that caricature. Its central message is that it doesn't matter what kind of person Michèle is - like most of us, she's a mass of contradictions - rape is repulsive, brutal and ugly, and how she reacts to her experience of it is entirely her affair and no one else's. Verhoeven practically dares you to put Michele on trial for her aberrant behaviour, knowing full well any case against her has more holes than a bullet-riddled slice of Emmental.

Besides, although Elle is in part a traditional revenge fantasy, anyone expecting a 21st Century I Spit On Your Grave will be sorely disappointed. It is keener to explore Michèle's reaction to her ordeal; how she goes about processing it and refusing to let it define or defeat her. She keeps calm and carries on, remaining steadfastly in control, even when it looks like she isn't. Perhaps a criticism of the movie is that everyone outside of the central character is either weak or hopelessly compromised in some other way; from the husband she ditched for hitting her and the son bullied by his domineering girlfriend, to the arrogant man-child with whom she's conducting an affair and the business partner she walks all over. Maybe the only person to truly get Michèle is her dad, but he's in prison and she refuses to see him (she's either genuinely appalled by his crimes or there are 'other reasons' for her reticence).

In lesser hands there would be a danger the shocking subject matter could completely eclipse the cast and director, but that was never really going to be the case with Verhoeven in the director's seat and Huppert as his lead. I'm not sure there is a better or braver film actor right now than the star of White Material and The Piano Teacher, and here she exudes an almost supernatural serenity and authority. Michèle is a genuine enigma, one you struggle to ever really get a handle on. There is a vulnerability and a danger about her, and I doubt anyone could sell that dichotomy better than Huppert. You spend pretty much the entire film trying to work out what's going on in her head and I'm not sure you're really any closer at the end. If that sounds frustrating, it really isn't. Elle is partly about what Michèle might have done - both in her past and in her present. She's playing games with the viewer, too.

Dream team: Huppert and Verhoeven at Cannes

Despite its moments of family melodrama and envelope-pushing comedy (there's a line in the restaurant scene that made me gasp and laugh at the same time), Verhoeven never loses sight of the fact Elle is, first and foremost, a psychological thriller. The 78-year-old director serves up a masterclass in unease every time Michèle is alone, either at home or at work, unsettling us with shots of Huppert sitting with her back to the glass door through which her attacker gained access, and a moment when pet cat Marty jumps into Michèle's arms from out of shot that drop-kicked my heart into my mouth. The fact we have, at least initially, no idea who the rapist is, lends every interaction she has with a male character an extra frisson, while the scenes in which we see Huppert tussling with her ski-masked attacker brought to mind slick but schlocky '90s fare such as Jagged Edge, as well as Verhoeven's own Basic Instinct. Its running time might be fairly lengthy - 130 minutes - but Elle is a pacy affair, too, and surprisingly light on its feet. There are times you could be watching a French family comedy as Michèle's verbal jousts with her mother, ex-husband and son's girlfriend provide particular highlights.

One of the problems with certain movies (and, while we're about it, novels, TV shows and comic-books, too) that depict sexual violence against women is that they can't help but make it titillating in some way. I'll give you an example from this year. Black is a well-reviewed film from tyro Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. A modern West Side Story-style tale about a forbidden romance between members of rival gangs, it boasts slick direction, some decent performances and a couple of genuinely powerful moments. Unfortunately, it also featured a scene of gang rape that was extremely problematic and, for me, pretty much torpedoed the good work done elsewhere in the film. It may be damning Elle with faint praise for not being that movie but its depiction of rape as something to repulse and disgust is, for want of a better word, refreshing when you consider what's on offer elsewhere in the culture right now.

Elle may be transgressive and outrageous - a genuine provocation, in fact - but it is also a powerful anti-rape (and anti-rape culture) statement in an age when you have a man running for President of the United States who is happy to brag about sexually assaulting women while, in this country, a footballer gets a rape conviction quashed when his defence team rubbish the sexual history of the young woman involved. As well as being genuinely magnificent, Verhoeven's film is horribly timely, too.

Elle opens in UK cinemas on 24 February, 2017

In Part 2: La La Land, The Birth Of A Nation and more...


WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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