‘Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all…’
Paul Verhoeven is best known as a controversy-courting auteur who has provided some of cinema’s most memorable moments in the last thirty years or so. Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers… these are all iconic movies in their own way. In recent years, however, the Dutch maestro has become more considered. Dare I say more mature? Elle is an unconventional film, but it is a million miles away from the genre fare that Verhoeven was putting out in the 90s. The result is a film that is interesting without ever threatening to join the ranks of other Verhoeven classics…
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful CEO of a video game company and the daughter of a convicted mass murderer. When she is violently raped by a masked assailant, she attempts to unweave the tangled web that her life has become in order to catch the man who attacked her.
The first thing to note is that the acting here is top-notch. Huppert is astonishingly good as our occasionally unhinged protagonist, and as the film goes on and the story becomes ever more strange, it is Huppert who keeps us grounded in something like reality. Verhoeven’s classy use of cinematography and lighting also helps Elle appear more sophisticated than it has any right to be, and aside from anything else, it’s certainly a memorable film.
The problem is that at over two hours long, Elle is too much of a slow burn, and the payoff isn’t quite compelling enough to justify the journey. Elle looks great, and it has a lot to say about relationships and sexual politics, but ultimately, it ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
A good film then, but not a great one. Watch Verhoeven’s 2022 nunsploitation movie Benedetta instead.