Last year, with my birthday as an excuse and the availability of several highly rated films at cheap prices on eBay, I treated myself to another tranche of Isabelle Huppert films. With the Film 2018 season still to complete, I reserved watching these until the new year, which gives me a new twist in the form of the first Sunday morning film that I am seeing for the first time.
Elle (adapted from the novel “Oh…” by Philip Djian) is a 2016 film directed by the infamous Paul Verhoeven. I was going to say that this is the first film by Verhoeven that I’ve seen but, on checking his credits, these include Basic Instincts, to which I took a long-term girlfriend many years back. He’s famous, or notorious, for exploring sex and violence in his films, to an intense degree (Basic Instincts is not a healthy film), and the presence of his name did make me wonder in advance.
But we’re here for the presence of another name, Isabelle Huppert. Her role as Michele Leblanc has been acclaimed as the greatest of her career, and whilst you will never shake my attachment to Pomme in La Dentelliere, she is incredible here as a successful woman in her fifties, who begins the film by being raped in her own home by a ski-masked assailant, who then cleans things up implacably and returns to her life.
The film is a psychological study of Michele, who is fascinating, but also something herself of a monster. In format, and it seems in the original novel, it is a rape-revenge film, and had Verhoeven been able to achieve his original intention of filming it in America, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that that is what it would have been, and only that, and pretty much worthless.
But the controversial subject matter seems to have prevented Verhoeven getting the kind of name actress needed to play the central part, for which thank the filmic gods for taking him to France and the marvellous Huppert.
Michele’s life is tightly wound. She’s the joint owner/controller of a successful company making violent video games, her writer ex-husband is seeing a much younger woman, her slacker son is involved with a volatile girl who’s pregnant by another man, and there’s a very dark shadow across her path that everyone knows about except the viewer, who has to learn. It’s public nature is vividly demonstrated when Michele takes lunch in a small cafe: a woman turns to look at her and then walks past her, tips her very full tray into Michele’s lap and hisses “Scum!” at her.
It involves her father, Georges Leblanc. It is the source of the extremely difficult relationship Michele has with her elderly mother. Michele is cold, critical, cutting. She refuses to reconcile to her father in any way (and we’ll soon learn why) and is openly contemptuous of her mother’s messing around with toyboys, the current of which, Ralf, she is considering marrying.
In a conversation with her best friend and partner, Anna (Anne Consigny), Michele is forthright: if she does, she’ll kill her. When Irene announces her engagement at a Xmas party organised by Michele, her daughter berates her in front of everyone. Irene collapses with a stroke that Michele questions as being real. She equally berates her comatose mother in hospital, during which Irene has a heart attack and dies. Michele is not a nice woman.
Indeed she’s not: she’s been fucking Robert for 6-8 months, just wanted to get laid, that’s all. Robert is Anna’s husband.
One very good thing Verhoeven does is not to link things together. Michele’s responses are unpredictable, she never does quite what you expect of her. I’m inclined to call her a sociopath, unheeding of the needs and wants of those around her, concerned only with herself, and once we learn about Georges Leblanc, there’s a golden opportunity to say that, a-ha, that’s clearly why.
Because Georges Leblanc is a serial killer, a man who murdered 27 people, parents and children. No wonder his wife and ten year old daughter turned out the way they are, we say, when we learn this from a recently repeated documentary that has sparked the lap-tipping. In America, I guess it would have gone no further. But in Elle there is a scene where, at the Xmas party, Michele talks about it openly, to her over-the-road neighbour Patrick, who she has already masturbated over, and everything takes on other dimensions.
Georges used to thumb crosses onto the foreheads of children on their way to school in the morning, until some parents asked him to stop doing it. That night, he killed all those people, in one night, and their dogs and cats too, though he spared one hamster, an incongruous note that bent the moment even further by its absurdity. He came home to Michele, Irene being on duty as a nurse, and together they started burning everything. Curtains, cushions, furniture, even clothes, until the Police came.
Suddenly, you can’t draw simple, straight-line connections, make easy assumptions.
Not that Huppert has ever allowed you to. Everything, every word and action, complicates the picture more, until you lose any sense of what you ought to think, if there is such a thing.
No wonder Michele won’t report the rape to the Police, she will never have anything to do with them. Almost unemotionally, but this is Huppert so that almost is in there, she does all the sweeping under the carpet things: throws the broken crockery in the bin, along with the blue dress she was wearing, has a hot sudsy soak (a heart shape of blood forms in the bubbles, just above her groin, a dissturbing visual), has her locks changed, visits the Doctor. She tells Richard (the ex-), Anna and Robert at a dinner that night, where, in order to park her car, she has already wrecked the fender of the car behind, belonging to Richard. She goes about her life with its demands, to which she responds acidly, never failing to be brutal.
But she’s also being stalked.
The rapist seems to be able to get to her: e-mails, texts, semen on her bed and a screenshot on her laptop. A parody of the in-development videogame in which a character is tentacularly raped, with Michele’s head superimposed on her, turns out to be a red herring. The pressure is horrendous.
The original rape takes place in darkness, sound only, sight being added when it is over. A flashback brought on by Michele’s cat meowing gives us the attack in daylight, in horrific clarity, but a second flashback catches us out by turning into Michele’s re-ordering of events so that when her hand pulls the tablecloth down, she grabs a heavy metal ashtray and uses it to, prophetically, bash his head into a pulp. Then she’s attacked again, in her home, raped again. She manages to pull the ski-mask off, and it is Patrick.
Late on, Michele, being driven home by Patrick from the very successful launch party for the game, a launch that cements better relations with chief designer Kurt, helps son Vincent to grow by having him successfully organise it, gives struggling Richard, his girlfriend gone, an opportunity and at which she’s admitted to Anna that she’s been the one fucking Robert, Michele says to Patrick, “It’s twisted.”
That’s a very Verhoeven state of filming, and indeed it is, and only Huppert has saved the film from turning into an exploitive mess. Because Michele hsn’t reported Patrick to the Police. She hasn’t told his sweet, innocent, devoutly Catholic wife, Rebecca. She hasn’t told anyone.
Her mother’s death prompts her to decide to see her father for the first time in 36 years. Michele arrives at the prison to find him dead, a suicide overnight. He was told of her visit just before lights out at 7.00pm. She takes pleasure in how she has killed him. But driving back, distracted by an intrusive Press call, her car crashes and she is trapped. Richard and Anna’s numbers go to voicemail: it is Patrick who manhandles her out, fixes her leg wound.
They begin a micro-affair. It’s twisted, that she should do that to begin with, that she evinces a hitherto unadverted masochist tendency, wants to be hit. That ruins it for Patrick: it has to be real. To achieve orgasm – for him but maybe not for her – she assaults him to provoke him to hit her.
This is edging, no shouldering its way, into areas of macho, see-she-likes-it territory, but this might not be what we think. The launch is a success, Michele leaves Vincent behind, gets Patrick to drive her home, tells him it’s twisted, and asks him if he really thought he would get away with what he did? She’s going to tell the Police.
He says nothing, just lets her out of the car. She dawdles over going into her house, leaves the gate unlocked, a bit Tony Martin. With ski-mask on, he attacks her inside, throws her about, beats her, caresses her throat gently where he will, after he’s had her again, strangle her. Someone weaves into the room from behind, with a log from the firebasket, crushes his skull: Vincent, who was supposed to have been left behind at the party and whose excuse for leaving his triumph and being there is never given, although you, like I, may well have thoughts about that.
Patrick dies confused. Michele is collected at first, but in shock for the Police. Rebecca sells up but, just before moving, thanks Michele for helping, for a brief time, to ease Patrick’s torment. Anna’s thrown Robert out, is selling the house, and plans to move in with Michele.
What have we been watching anyway? If there had been an American version, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, and Verhoeven himself has said it would have been banal and not worth doing (presumably because he’s already done it with Basic Instincts). I an deeply suspicious about Michele, about who she is and what she’s capable of, and that’s entirely down to Isabelle Huppert, firstly for being so unbelievably good as to make this into a film of innumerable angles that draw your thoughts in so many directions, and secondly for being so unbelievably good as to draw both Director and writer into deeper waters than the otherwise crass concept would usually emcompass.
The film is Huppert’s. There isn’t a single scene without her in it, but she’s supported by a cast good enough to frame her at every turn. Anne Consigny’s part as best friend is small but beautifully judged, and Laurent Lafitte as Patrick is the only other part of any genuine size and he is vital to allowing the sexual role in the film to stay within the realms of the believable, close run thing though it is at times.
So, the first sight-unseen Film 2019 production is an undoubted success. There will be two more Isabelle Huppert performances in the next couple of months.