Monday, February 27, 2017

Elle (2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven's first movie in 10 years is unsurprising in its themes—it's the kind of provocateur gesture he's chased for much of his career (think Basic Instinct, Showgirls, or even Total Recall). But, given those themes, it's surprising in its ability to engage, befuddle, and provoke. Nothing here is like a slice of life any way I know yet it's impossible to stop watching. Isabelle Huppert, who is doing her own reprisal of career-long themes (think White Material, Amour, and especially The Piano Teacher), is casually astonishing, which is typical for her. In many ways Verhoeven and Huppert is a dream team that could have happened long ago. Huppert is Michele Leblanc, a complicated woman—head of a successful video game company, serial philanderer, daughter of a reviled serial killer. This background emerges slowly—the picture is a character study of Leblanc and that's something that requires a lot of unpacking. The screenplay effectively lures and hooks us by doling out the vital information about her piecemeal even as it moves relentlessly forward. Her actions in front of us fill the rest of the picture out, though there's a lot of erasing and rewriting of impressions as we go. Sexual assault is the essential medium this movie travels in. The first scene is a home invasion rape suffered by Leblanc, and then it turns out the creep is stalking her. She has her reasons for not going to the police, connected to her experience with her father. She's ice cold dealing with the rape—orders takeout food on the phone, goes to the hospital for medical screening, casually spoils a get-together with friends by telling them and then worrying them further by her apparent indifference. At about the halfway point of the movie, a good handful of the people around her are likely candidates to be the culprit. They are also great characters, all of them, sharply etched. For a flavor of horror (not really necessary, thanks), the picture is full of shock cuts and surprise images. You may be impatient to know certain things, but the movie is always giving you important information. It goes to places that may be hard to believe, but again, even in your disbelief, it never lost its grip. Among other things, Verhoeven's previous picture, Black Book, demonstrated his command of distraction with narrative force, and in Elle, if anything, it's even better. Brace yourself.

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