Sunday 30 October 2016

The Current Cinema - Eddie Cockrell enthuses over Paul Verhoeven's return to film-making ELLE

Paul Verhoeven’s new film ELLE, his first in a decade and the French language and location debut of the Dutch-born director, tells of hard-charging video game production company co-owner Michele  (Isabelle Huppert, at the top of her game), and her unusual—to say the least—response to the brutal home invasion and sexual assault that opens the action.

This sinewy, provocative thriller has been compared to the work of Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, and those comparisons are well-earned. Yet there’s also a certain disconnect to it, as life-altering events amongst Michele and her friends and family pass with little or no emotional toll evident to the characters. This creates an odd, occasionally distracting air of surrealism that can feel at odds with the story’s chilling plausibility.

Even before the rape, Michele led a complicated life. Not one for niceties, she is downright dismissive of her mother Irene (Judith Magre) yet tolerant of her ex-husband (Charles Berling). Her headstrong son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) causes her no end of exasperation, but she seems unusually close to her business partner Anna (Ann Consigny) and her husband Robert (Christian Berkel). And that’s before she cosies up to her religious neighbours Rebecca (Virginie Efira) and Patrick (Laurent Lafitte).

Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven's Elle
There’s more to Michele’s circle than meets the eye—much more, but one of the pleasures, if that’s the word, of ELLE is discovering the plot’s twists and turns for oneself. No stranger to the jarring effects of violence on his characters in numerous genres (perhaps most emblematic in his 1990 science fiction action movie TOTAL RECALL), Verhoeven continues that predilection here but tempers it with a detached emotional viciousness that is somehow more visceral, and more soul-searing for it.

Well into the process of adapting Philippe Dijian’s novel “Oh…,” the film was meant to be shot in the United States (this explains why the screenwriter, David Birke, is American). Verhoeven readily admits to cold feet at the prospect of finding an American actress ready or willing to take on the formidable role of Michele. The shift to a French metropolis makes sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the clichéd view of that culture’s romantic entanglements, of which there are many.

Despite any misgivings, in the end it’s good to have Paul Verhoeven back and displaying the kind of confidence that propelled his career. Ambitious films are often flawed, but the best of those can propel themselves past such shortcomings. ELLE, which will represent France in the upcoming Foreign Film race at the Academy Awards, narrowly risks overstaying its 131-minute running time but bulls through on the strength of Verhoeven’s patented swagger and Huppert’s emotional intelligence.

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