Both the film “Elle” and its protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle, resist common tropes related to sexual assault (one of which occurs in the opening scene). Chiefly, neither dwells in victimhood or the battle wounds of a survivor. It does not galvanize the righteous anger of the audience back against the perpetrator through the vicarious thrill of revenge.
But here’s the thing: “Elle” is defined more by what it doesn’t do and not by what it does. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke dwell in the murky gray areas of Michèle’s twisted psychology as she herself remains unclear as to how to proceed. She knows that she does not want to call the police, as she believes her position as the daughter of a serial killer would not lead to any semblance of justice. She does not want to make a fuss about the incident or let it overpower her thoughts and routines. But what does she do?
Huppert brings steely gumption to her character, a backbone necessary to even establish the most elementary semblance of realism in “Elle.” Her performance, and the film writ large, seem to lack a consistent, coherent internal logic. With her mental state intentionally obfuscated from us, we must interpolate from her actions. And Michèle’s behavior fluctuates vastly from scene to scene. She may seem alarmed by a prank video game scene depicting her rape to the point of conducting a secret witch hunt … only to turn around and engage in a sexual cat-and-mouse game with her own assailant.
No film is forced to answer to the demands of its viewers for answers and resolution. But when lack of clarity feels like an externality of the film rather than an essential narrative feature, the rules change a bit. The instability and unpredictability of “Elle” become its guiding light and driving force. With scant character detail and no real dialogue with issues, the film can only end in emptiness. Refusing a mode of thought is easy. Proposing a new one creates a much greater challenge, one that Verhoeven, Birke and Huppert do not seem up to fully meeting. B /