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Elle finds director Paul Verhoeven operating at peak power -- and benefiting from a typically outstanding performance from Isabelle Huppert in the central role.
Elle finds director Paul Verhoeven operating at peak power -- and benefiting from a typically outstanding performance from Isabelle Huppert in the central role.
All Critics (227)
| Top Critics (31)
| Fresh (206)
| Rotten (21)
| DVD (1)
Elle's moral ambiguity and controversial content are its strengths.
"Elle" never pulls any punches, and Verhoeven titillates right until the end.
There are several ways you can watch "Elle," only one of which is mildly enjoyable.
Get over your subtitle phobia and check out one of the best films of the year.
Elle is clean, deep, and uncomfortable.
Like its heroine, the film shocks by lunging back and forth between comedy and tragedy.
Verhoeven...is as provocative as ever but rape-revenge horror-satire Elle is on a different more dangerous and unpredictable, European art-house plane altogether.
Elle's primary subject matter proves to be problematic in the sense that it gets in the way of the dark heart of the film: the blackly comic family melodrama.
Elle may not be easy to watch, but you certainly can't take your eyes off Huppert -- eager to see what she will do next.
It's not a whodunnit in the conventional sense as the masked stalker is essentially a metaphorical representation of a grotesque patriarchal need to violate strong women.
Whether you call it Elle or Problematic: The Movie, troubling material has never been such a pleasure to watch.
This movie abut terrible people doing terrible things to each other is an absolutely wicked thrill.
Verhoeven creates a highly effective and absorbing combination of thriller and character study, being particularly successful as the former and benefiting from a careful, nuanced performance by Isabelle Huppert, who offers a whole lot of depth to a difficult character.
Due to the fact that it hasn't seen any US theatrical release yet, I had to snag an advance Blu-ray copy of Paul Verhoeven's latest film "Elle". Upon viewing it, I can see why it ended up on so many critics' best-of 2016 lists. Many have said that it is a return to form for the director, but I don't think he ever really went away. Personally, I think "Showgirls" is a masterpiece - an unpopular opinion I know. "Starship Troopers" was good for what it was, action schlock amidst a satire of American nationalism. And "Black Books" is considered one of the greatest Dutch movies of all time. His perspicacity in choosing projects may have made his output in the last 20 years sparse, but if this film is any indication of his method of quality control then more power to him. "Elle" has all of the transgressive themes and audacious humor of his previous works, but this film belongs to Isabelle Huppert above all. She plays a precarious role as a woman who refuses to allow a traumatic childhood and a recent sexual assault disempower her. In the process, she systematically plots revenge on her rapist while exploiting the men in her life to achieve her goals. Huppert purposely never portrays herself as a victim and never allows the revenge to become a "Kill Bill"-esque power fantasy. The film is rooted firmly in a subtle reality, with occasional steps into absurdity. What culminates is a darkly humorous and stressful but rewarding experience. Verhoeven has mentioned that he had a difficult time trying to get the film made in the US because of the delicate and provocative subject matter. Luckily, casting and production were deferred to France. Of all of the Academy Award's best actress nominees this year, Huppert had the most difficult role by far, and she managed to elevate and excel in "Elle".
It's been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch - Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven's since 2000's Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He's famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it's his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It's an uncomfortable viewing and that's much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend's husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life's orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There's also the matter of vengeance.
Elle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It's harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She's a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There's a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can't help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It's just her nature. It's a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.
About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that's when it's revealed she's the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she "assisted" her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There's a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn't go to the police because she didn't want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele's relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son's penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa's DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.
The problem Verhoeven's movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele's world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There's the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There's the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There's her friend's husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There's her neighbor's husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele's feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That's because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent's one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele's mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story's sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It's a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it's abandoned its sense of direction. You're waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It's a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.
There's a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle's caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There's an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It's a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they've come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.
Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She's 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She's constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There's a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she's having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele's armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn't care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.
Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don't know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it's a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser's power or reconfirm it? I can't say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974's The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there's enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can't stand.
I can't quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I'm discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film's extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven's Hollywood career. But that's too easy, and there's no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele's treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director's chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It's not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.
Nate's Grade: B
RAPES OF WRATH - My Review of ELLE (4 Stars)
Skirting the line between feminism and misogyny has been one of the hallmarks of Paul Verhoeven's career. Love 'em or hate 'em, films such as BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS delivered strong, iconic female characters and a LOT of skin. At 78, this Dutch Master doesn't seem to want to change his tune now, but with his latest film, ELLE, he's taken his brand to a highly original, perverse new level.
Written by David Birke, which he adapted from a novel called "Oh..." by Philippe Djian, ELLE tells the story of Michèle Leblanc (the legendary Isabelle Huppert), a brusque, no-nonsense video game company owner who, in the opening scene, survives a violent rape in her living room. Instead of calling the police, Michèle quietly cleans up the shattered glass, takes a bubble bath, and carries on with her day. Some time later, at a dinner, she matter of factly tells the table about the incident.
Hated at work and despised by the general public as a possible accomplice to her father's serial murders when she was a child, Michèle seems geared to not follow any predictable routes in life. She has complicated relationships with everyone she knows, including her mother, who lives for botox and her male gigolo, her best friend/business partner and her husband, her devout neighbors, resentful male employees and an adoring one, her less successful ex-husband and unambitious son. She even manages to talk sass to her cat, who impassively witnesses everything. In a story where almost everyone is a suspect, you would think discovering the identity of the rapist, who wore a ski mask, would be the end of the story.
Clearly, the filmmakers have more on their mind when we learn who he is a little more than halfway through. It's what happens next where the movie goes a little bonkers and may have feminists crying foul. Michèle isn't your standard issue movie heroine. She's tough, conniving, socially impenetrable, sleeps with other women's husbands, and definitely likes things a little on the kinky side. It's as if her early life traumas have led to envelope-pushing behavior. She's trying to cope with the sins of her father the best way she knows how, and none of those choices are what you would typically experience in a studio revenge fantasy. In other words, this ain't no ENOUGH or SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, and that's a very good thing.
Reportedly, no American actress would touch this material, which was originally written in English and translated to French after Huppert bravely climbed aboard. She has made a career out of playing idiosyncratic survivors, and her Michèle just may be her best performance yet. Huppert knows how to annihilate another person with her pointed brand of stoicism. Instead of resorting to eye-rolling or wild gestures, Huppert opts for intense, assured, confident command. So much of ELLE uses dark wit to subvert our expectations. In one scene, while using binoculars to spy on someone, she does something I've never seen another rape victim do in a film before. Here's a woman who knows what she likes and makes no bones about it. You may not ever want to know Michèle, but you sure as hell would love to get her on your side.
Verhoeven keeps things visually simple, although his use of negative space inspires me, and he still favors those Bernard Herrmann-esque scores, this time provided by Anne Dudley. ELLE feels more natural than his other films, more French due to his use of a handheld camera most of the time. You may not like his politics, but just the way his heroine parks her car by tearing off the other car's bumper and slyly smiling, makes me want to stay on Team Verhoeven until the bitter end.
So is this a feminist film or is it deeply misogynistic? I think the answer is yes to both. For a film that aims for a type of female revenge, it also shows a LOT of violence against women. Without spoiling anything, ELLE brings new meaning to yelling back at the screen, "Don't go in the basement!" Because most of the people around Michèle exude empathy more often than she does, you're not sure who you're rooting for. One-by-one, she takes aim at the men around her, as a way of saying, "My father took control of my life, and he will be the last man who ever does." It's not, however, the type of revenge you end up applauding. You may not even like Michèle in the end, or she may just wind up being your spirit animal. Whichever side of the issue you find yourself on, you won't soon forget Michèle's methods and Huppert's incredible performance.
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