The Cannes Film Festival is known for premiering an abundance of films that stir up controversy on several fronts. Many artists are able to display their work that push the boundaries on the perspectives that we expect to see regarding various human behaviors. One of this year's most highly discussed films to come from the festival is Paul Verhoeven's Elle. We've all heard of strange mixes in tone, although not quite to the degree of a light-hearted feature about rape. The subject matter and its portrayal will certainly divide audiences; some will find it brave and others will be horribly offended.
Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful businesswoman, who owns a video game company. However, she is divorced and has rough relationships with her mother and son, particularly due to a dark family past. When she's raped in her own home, a cat and mouse game begins as she seeks out the identity of this mysterious sexual assailant.
Those who are going into this blind will be shocked when the very first scene shown on screen is a rape sequence. Michèle simply cleans up and goes about her day, as if it never happened. Her family troubles could have easily composed of a film of its own, as she deals with her ex-husband, oblivious son, and mother. They each have their own little quirks that contribute to the comedic aspects of the feature quite well, especially in the exchanges with her son. He's taking advantage of his mother to help pay for an expensive apartment for him and his insufferable girlfriend. All of this energy ultimately builds up to a dinner sequence with plenty of awkward laughs to be had. This carries over into Michèle's work life, as practically the entire company despises her, except for the one employee that clearly has feelings for her. Even despite a good sense of humor, its own comedy is exactly what might turn some audiences off.
At its core, this is a rape-revenge thriller that tries to be light-hearted about it. Some are championing the film as a brave piece of feminist filmmaking, while others find it insulting. Depending upon what side of the fence you fall on, you're guaranteed to have a very different reaction. Despite still finding plenty of redeeming qualities about the film, I still fall on the latter side. Rape is a very serious topic that shouldn't be depicted in a light fashion. However, anybody other than Paul Verhoeven would have made something much more offensive than what we get in Elle. He walks a fine line, but occasionally crosses over it in ways that can only be responded to in a frustrated eye roll. Nevertheless, the screenplay correctly places its focus on its lead character, who is displayed with flaws and all.
The farther we get into the thriller aspects of the film, the more flimsy it begins to feel. Michèle's curiosity for the identity of the rapist dramatically increases, as she even asks an employee at work to hack office computers. The culprit's identity is fairly obvious, which immediately causes much of this attempt at tension to feel a bit tedious. The third act is quite frustrating, as characters begin to act in ways that make absolutely no sense from how they have been portrayed thus far. Rather than feeling unpredictable, this ultimately caused me to feel dramatically less connected to the characters. For a rape-revenge thriller, the "revenge" part is incredibly unsatisfying. Elle left me feeling a bit cold to its overall message.
While audiences will certainly be divided upon the point of the film, no audience will doubt that Isabelle Huppert is absolutely stellar as Michèle. This is an Oscar-caliber performance that is the backbone of the entire film; it would have entirely fallen apart without it. Huppert commands this role in a way that feels unique, gut-wrenching, and occasionally hilarious. The bottom line is that she's always convincing and impressive. Given that she hasn't even been nominated for an Academy Award before, it would be a real shock to see her be ignored once again. Regardless of your opinion of the film itself, you'll be absolutely floored by Isabelle Huppert.
Upon the end credits rolling, I found my thoughts to be incredibly conflicting. There's a lot of good stuff here, but it's hard to get excited about a light-hearted rape story that turns into a revenge thriller. You'll either find it to be offensive or defiantly brave. Paul Verhoeven successfully blends the differing tones together rather well, but it goes a bit too far off the rails in the third act. The most interesting character dynamics that generated humor and tension are ultimately given the easy way out, which feels incredibly unsatisfying. Nevertheless, Isabelle Huppert delivers the performance of her career in what is most certainly deserving of Academy Award attention. Elle is a complicated film that certainly isn't for everybody. This one comes with a light recommendation.