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Blu-ray Review: Elle

March 21, 2017

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The opening scene of Elle will test your tolerance for everything that comes after.  Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) lies on the floor of her house screaming, with her clothes torn, legs bloodied and broken dishes surrounding her head, as a masked intruder brutally rapes her.  A grey cat looks upon, blinking unassumingly.

Michèle is the head of a successful video game company in Paris, that produces weirdly sexual games.  Things only grow more complicated and disturbing as she resolutely tries to find her attacker, forcing her to examine jealous male employees and the various other men in her life.

These include the slick new neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) who lives across the street with his devoutly religious wife (Virginie Efira), her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), and her secret lover Robert (Christian Berkel) who is married to her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny).  Michèle also has a dark past that is coming back to haunt her, with her serial killer father coming up for parole, and increased media interest in his shocking killing spree.

I fully understand that director and frequent provocateur Paul Verhoeven intended to make viewers feel uneasy with Elle, but the film’s cold characters, chilly atmosphere and disturbing subject matter often made me feel uncomfortable to the point that I found it hard to even really get into the story.  The film feels so blasé and almost nonchalant in its explorations of the banality of evil, that it’s nearly impossible to discern what, if anything, it’s actually trying to say about sexual assault.

Because of this coldly unassuming approach, the vicious depictions of rape can end up feeling somewhat exploitative.  The characters often react to things in oddly detached ways, and Elle strikes a bizarre tone throughout, ending up perched somewhere between psychological thriller, pitch black comedy and even over the top family melodrama, through an oddly placed subplot involving Michèle’s adult son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend that doesn’t quite mesh with everything else.

I have no problems with a challenging film, but I didn’t feel so much challenged by Elle as much as I just felt uncomfortable watching it, and for all of its attempts to be shocking, the story is actually somewhat predictable.  If the intended purpose of Elle is to push us far past our comfort zones, then I guess the film is effective on that front, but it also makes it hard for me to personally recommend it.  Although there’s no denying the strength of Isabelle Huppert’s Oscar-nominated and carefully calculated performance to carry us through, this isn’t really a film that I want to experience again.

The Blu-ray also includes the featurette A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle, and Celebrating An Icon: AFI’s Tribute to Isabelle Huppert.

Elle is a Sony Pictures Classics release.  It’s 131 minutes and rated 18A.

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