Written by: David Birke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira
Clear cut motivations make it easy to connect with protagonists because we can align right behind them and adequately follow their journey. We can sympathize with them all the way. Elle decides to take a different approach in the way it takes a messy event and continues to defy expectations at every turn resulting in such a unique experience. The protagonist does everything for her own sake and creates a glass around her where all we can do is watch and react.
After being brutally raped and assaulted in her home, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) presents this information to her friends but decides to not report it to the police. She begins to question the different men in her life who might be responsible for the assault including some disgruntled employees of her video game company. As the assailant becomes closer to being revealed, the festering misogynistic culture around her begins to make itself more prominent.
Beginning with some harshly harrowing subject material, Elle may prove to be too much for some and understandably so. The depiction of the assault comes seemingly out of nowhere and arrives with a level of harshness no one could expect. The brutality of it makes it that more surprising when following the choices made by Michèle following what occurred. She discloses it to her friends but refuses to go to report it to the authorities. This film finds its resonance in building the frustration of the audience in these decisions.
At many turns within our patriarchal culture, when sexual assault survivors come forward whenever they’re ready, they receive questions as to the timing when the only important information truly only lies in that they came forward at all. Elle put me in that position where I became truly concerned as to why she does not seek the resources to find the person who did this to her, but the film gives her complete agency in what she does moving forward. Things only get further complicated but that becomes the entire point as she does what she needs to do in order to process everything and properly react in her own mindset.
In a way, the traumatic event opened up her eyes to the misogynistic culture permeating every angle of her life, especially within a company she owns. The video game community has its fair share of chauvinistic members and Michèle seemingly needs to defend her actions to employees where men would not be questioned. She makes the demands and somehow gets patronized by individuals she pays to work, which only makes the disturbing content she gets sent all the more frightening. Being a woman in spaces dominated by men can be a tough hill to perpetually climb, but the rampant misogyny ever flowing from video game culture lies in the most concerning range. You just have to look at video games throughout the years and the dynamics they have typically established between their male and female characters. Having someone like Michèle state her demands eventually makes her a target, which continues to raise her suspicions as to who assaulted her.
Narratively, this film goes in directions I did not expect because it chooses to never take the easy way out in resolving its central conflict. Just when you think, everything could be wrapped up, a character decision continues the story, but it does not detract from the quality because the agency lies with Michèle in a refreshing manner. It provides many eye-opening moments that endlessly thrill and make you feel awfully conflicted.
It should be no surprise that Isabelle Huppert put in a great performance as she remains one of the best to ever act and she does wonders with this performance. She effortlessly flows throughout this story and helps bring this character to life in a way I could not imagine anyone else finding success. Her teaming up with director Paul Verhoeven created a match I never knew I needed as they tackle this salacious material in a deftly mature and complex manner. He walks the finest of lines with this topic and successfully communicates the overall message.
Elle certainly will not be for everyone and it unquestionably chooses not to be with its subject material and plot execution. If anything, it remains an intriguing idea of how a survivor reacts to an assault. Provocative in its nature, it dares the audience to judge her and nearly trapped me on several occasions, which speaks to the intended impact. It will purposefully make you feel a bevy of emotions while watching and does it extremely well.