NYFF Film Review: ‘Elle’ Tantalizes Its Viewer With Difficult Material and Isabelle Huppert’s Striking Portrayal


elle2016 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Paul Verhoeven has established himself as one of the most controversial directors working today. Constantly pushing the boundaries, and hitting contentious and often heavily questionable beats and choices, the “Showgirls” director has seemed to hone in most of that and put it to good use in his provocative thriller “Elle.” Driven by a tremendous and powerhouse performance from Isabelle Huppert, “Elle” electrifies in its slick and throwback call to the ’90s thriller. Screenwriter David Birke, who adapts the novel by Philippe Djian, constructs an enigmatic story where you never know where your next character is going to end up.

“Elle” tells the story of a successful businesswoman named Michele (Huppert). When Michele tries to track down an unknown man who raped her, she gets quickly entangled in a game of cat and mouse, where everyone is a suspect and everyone has a motive.

2016 has weirdly presented itself as the return of the ’90s with films like “Nocturnal Animals” and “The Girl on the Train” making their marks with audiences. “Elle” hawks back to films like “Cape Fear” from Martin Scorsese or “Wild Things” from John McNaughton – stylistically ravaging, but hypnotically inscrutable in its narrative defenses. Verhoeven’s complex take on rape and sexuality was never going to be for general audiences, and you shouldn’t expect this film to be for everyone. The 78-year-old filmmaker has reveled in carnage for decades with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” being among his most prolific.

The graphic nature of “Elle” will feel oddly familiar to another one of his cult classics, “Basic Instinct,” but with less “beaver shots” and more of Huppert’s agonizing screams. You can appreciate a director that takes high risks. There can be high rewards for such a filmmaker. It blends the grotesque nature of female abuse, twisted into a black comedy.

elleHuppert’s work in front of the screen has gone unnoticed for decades by awards groups. “The Piano Teacher,” “Amour,” and “I Heart Huckabees” are just some of the omissions that have been passed over but with “Elle,” she bridges a pathway from audience to character in one of the most dynamic and interesting characters of the year. While she may be off-putting to some, and sure to just be a polarizing figure that will be spoken about in depth on message boards, Huppert’s dedication to the character is among the year’s finest. It’s a performance that the Academy Awards should heavily consider for Best Actress.

“Elle” is harsh, sometimes blurring the line between eroticism and exhibitionist, but shamelessly being raunchy in a new age film noir. It also features a vivacious and mesmerizing score by Anne Dudley and smooth and polished camera work by Stéphane Fontaine.

The result of “Elle” may seem flimsy, but from the start it manages to sink its teeth into your cinematic soul. Erotically charged and psychologically superb, the shocking and effective storyline manages to feel like a female empowerment piece, engaging its viewers with some uncomfortable material. At bare minimum, you can take the sexy and masterful work of veteran actress Isabelle Huppert to the bank.

“Elle” is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and is scheduled to be released on Nov. 11.

It is the official submission from France for the Foreign Language Film Oscar.

GRADE: (★★★½)