Michele LeBlanc sweeps the floor of her pristine living room after being raped by a masked intruder. She doesn’t spend more than a few minutes thinking about the horror she just experienced. She cleans up as if nothing could be more urgent on the day of her rape than putting a few pieces of broken porcelain on the trash. She has things to do and video games to produce and launch. The emoting and the strategizing can wait.
‘Elle’ keeps you riveted from beginning, when it opens with screams of a woman being raped. After the initial shock of seeing this middle-aged woman ravaged in her own home, naturally, you’d want to know the who, the what and the why. But the film chooses to show who Michele is as a “regular”, video game company-owning bad bitch. She is a divorcee with one son (who’s gorgeous but dim), and she has complicated relationships with men.
She also has a disturbing past involving a psychopathic father and an immortalized photo of her young self that suggests she may have been an unwitting participant in her father’s slaughter of an entire neighborhood. This complicates the hunt for her violator because her history might have played a role. It could be someone from any of the families of her father’s victims. It could be Kurt, the outwardly hostile game designer in her own company, or the innocent-looking, baby-fats having Kevin who openly admires her kind of feist. You couldn’t even be faulted for thinking it might be her son because in her world, the men are as sick as they come. There really is no telling.
Michele is the kind of person who is a joy to talk about, so here I am knocking myself out. And the film agrees. Instead of lingering on her pain (is she even pained?!), the film peels off the layers of her icy exterior. When she pauses to think about her rape, it’s not an occasion to break down in tears; it’s to fantasize about smashing the face of her rapist. Then she goes on with her life.
When she tells her best friend, Anna, whose husband she’s fucking, that her specialty is handling psychos, you believe her. So you know that even without having read any spoilers, she’s going to have her face-smash moment. She wants revenge, but she doesn’t let thoughts of it consume her. But, she shops for a hammer and a pepper spray because she’s practical and cautious.
Michele is obviously twisted not just because of her past, or the things she does, but also because of the things she does with the people she surrounds herself with. When she finds out the identity of the scum who leaves cum stains on her bed, she matter-of-factly tells him she’s going to report him to the police… while riding in his car coming from a party in which she’s invited him to, days or weeks after finding out his identity, and after they’ve had another round of violent, rape-fantasy romp in the rapist’s basement, which she may or may not have consented.
Her best friend, Anna, tells her about Richard’s underwear that definitely smells of cheating. Anna is shamed to the bone for her discovery. “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all,” is Michele’s chilly response, and it’s wrong kind of right. She tells her this not to comfort her but as an FYI, because, apparently, Anna forgot the ways of the world, and Elle is just that kind of best friend that keeps you informed.
Upon realizing the problematic relationship she begins to have with her rapist, Michele appears to welcome it even more. It legitimizes the suspicion that she may possibly be a sociopath. But I can’t be sure! It’s the kind of acting that refuses to give anything away. And that’s possibly because Isabelle Huppert wasn’t ‘trying to find answers’ for the character; she ‘didn’t have the questions, even,’ and it made for an engrossing performance. You can’t take your eyes from her, not even when she’s being raped – it’s not because you’re a perv but, perhaps, because a glint in her eye could give something away and you’re afraid you’re going to miss it. Director Paul Verhoeven and Huppert just ‘let it burn all the way through.’ And the result is fire.