Tuesday 14 March 2017


Palindromic Vengeance

France/Germany/Belgium 2016
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
UK cinema release print.

I’ve quite liked some of Paul Verhoeven’s films in the past, with Robocop being the stand out one for me. It has to be said, though, that the films I’ve seen by him have tended to be American productions and, somehow, feel more like comic book movies than real films for consenting adults. Not a pop at Verhoeven, by the way... I think this applies to most theatrical releases these days and sometimes that kind of stylistic choice goes down a treat. However, I’m not used to seeing a film which is a, relatively, complex and subtle picture like we have here from a director like him.

One of the partial reasons for this, apart from the writing, is that he’s filled the roles with incredible actors, most of whom I don’t know but many of whom seemed familiar and recognisable. Recognisable or not, though, they all do some great work here... not least the true star of the piece, Isabelle Huppert. I’ve not seen too many of the films made by this outstanding French actress, living in a small town which is even, technically, in London means the opportunities to see anything other than big budget US movies is fairly limited... but I’ve been a fan of her work ever since seeing her in the lead role in one of my favourite living director’s films... Hal Hartley’s Amateur. Truth be told, it was her name that brought me to Elle rather than Verhoeven’s (well, actually it was a train). Plus it had some good word of mouth so I took a trip out to the Hackney Picture House to give it a look (the film isn’t showing locally to me... surprise, surprise).

Elle stars Huppert as Michèle Leblanc, the joint founder and director of a video game company. She’s a successful business woman but her character is a lot more interesting, emotional, devious and complex than her seemingly muffled exterior might lead her friends to believe. Part of this wealth of depth which, in all honesty, I imagine very few actresses other than Huppert could have successfully  pulled off, stems from an extremely traumatic incident from her childhood which has obviously left a mark on her and which, perhaps, gives some insight in the way her character reacts to things in certain scenes. Which is an observation I couldn’t imagine myself writing all that often about a female character in an American film, to be sure but, if cinema is good at one thing it’s good about its diversity of expression, so maybe I’m being a little unfair to Hollywood in this comparison.

The film starts off with a black screen and the sound of Michèle’s struggles and cries on the soundtrack, followed by a cat watching what she is going through before Verhoeven’s camera reveals a scene of Michèle being beaten and raped in her house. The killer, wearing a body suit and mask which makes him vaguely reminiscent of the comic book character Diabolik, leaves her recovering on the floor. The scene is quite intense and, as the film plays out, we see the impression it has made on Michèle’s mind as she flashes back to it internally, replaying and sometimes changing the outcome of the encounter. This is a good tool to help the audience grasp the weight of the incident on the central character, actually, because the way she deals with this event externally is with considerably less alarm and upset than one might reasonably expect from a woman placed in this kind of situation.

The first half of the film is basically a mystery as, while still getting threats and a humiliating computer game movie of her made public, she tries to learn the identity of her assailant who, by the way, doesn’t stop at attempting just one attack on her through the course of the film. Meanwhile, she has a convoluted life to handle, having an affair with her best friend and business partner’s husband, amongst other amorous interests, and dealing with her ex-husband, her mother and her son. When she finally reveals who the rapist is in the movie, I have to admit I was just a little disappointed, at first. I can usually figure out the identity of the mystery at the heart of most movies I watch and, alas, in this movie I had already figured the identity of this person the first time we see him in a social context without his mask. That being said, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie and certainly, this mystery is only the first half of the film. The next part is the long played out vengeance of Michèle as she takes stock of her social situations and slowly pulls together various threads of her own convoluted life to bring about a denouement which I didn’t really, quite, see coming but which absolutely fits her character’s history. The path to the conclusion of the film is not a black and white one and, I’m glad to say, not all the scenes in this movie follow that dull, cause and effect pattern endemic to a lot of modern movies. For instance, Verhoeven includes a sequence where Michèle gets one of her employees to teach her how to use a gun, setting up the idea that she will buy and use one at a later point in the film. But she doesn’t and it’s exactly this kind of detail in the drama of these kinds of richly woven movies that make them so much more interesting than a lot of product around. Scenes in a story don’t always have to lead to something else, they can just be about re-enforcing the inner state of where a character is at, rather than lead you onto the next stage of the journey.

Anne Dudley’s score to the movie is somehow slow, light and more ponderous than I was expecting from this film but, once the character of Michèle is in your head and you see the way she deals with events in her life, it makes perfect sense and seems completely right for it. I’d like to hear it away from the movie but the CD is so expensive compared to others that I probably won’t rush out to buy this one straight away (and I’m certainly not going with a cheap download option... thanks but no thanks music labels). It certainly maintains an atmosphere of ‘muffled reality’ in some scenes which perfectly reflects the way Michèle conveys herself to her friends and relatives.

Elle is a dark work of art with a wonderful cast and some nice choices by the director which don’t push the movie over the top in its exploration of, in all honesty, the kinds of events and incidents which could easily be exploited in a more spectacular fashion. Despite figuring out who the main antagonist is (and even that word may be too strong for his character, in some respects... this movie greyshades its depiction of events pretty well) I had a really good time with this and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see something a little different to the kind of stuff you usually get in cinemas these days. Lovely film. Not enough of these kinds of affairs are given a release in this country. Which is a shame.

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