The question we should be asking isn’t where has director Paul Verhoeven been for the past decade. The question is where has this Verhoeven been all our lives? The director whose career skyrocketed with Total Recall and Basic Instinct hasn’t released a film since 2006’s Black Book, the Dutch filmmaker’s return to his homeland. We hoped whatever Verhoeven had in store for us next would be a return to the trashy good form with which the filmmaker had become known, and Elle, his latest, doesn’t disappoint. It isn’t what was expected, either, instead he gives us an eye-opening and wholly unique look at one woman’s attempt to connect with any man in her life: her son, her ex-husband, her mass-murderer father, or even her rapist.
Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as that woman, Michelle Leblanc, who we see being assaulted in the film’s surprising, opening moments. What’s more surprising is how trivial Leblanc treats the attack. She cleans up after the attacker, picks up the broken pieces of kitchenware that’s fallen to the floor, and moves on with her life. She doesn’t even phone the police, as her father’s sadistic crimes – done when Leblanc was just a young girl, sit heavily with the community around her.
Instead, Leblanc goes right back to the daily routine of supporting her unsuccessful son and his pregnant girlfriend, working on the violent new video game her company – in which she is in charge – is developing, and carrying on with an emotionless affair with one of her co-worker’s husbands. Nothing seems to run smoothly in Leblanc’s life, but the vicious attack brought upon her doesn’t seem to phase the woman until, of course, she can establish the identity of her attacker.
To say much more about the story told in Elle would be doing the film a huge disservice. Verhoeven directs from a screenplay written by David Birke and adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel titled “Oh…” and the subject matter at hand is both surprising and revealing. It isn’t that much of a shock to see Verhoeven making a film such as Elle, but the manner in which everything is laid out and executed is shocking in just how masterfully crafted it all is. For a director with Verhoeven’s filmography the real surprise comes in realizing after 35 years making films he has finally unveiled his master work.
Elle plays out like a twisted soap opera, all the connections Leblanc has in the world being established as a series of awkward and often humorous interactions. Life’s sense of humor has a funny way of bleeding into the film, and Verhoeven allows it all to play out in the most organic of ways. More often than not it’s making you laugh at the situation for fear of cringing away from it, with the commitment involved in relaying the message hitting in incredible and creative ways.
Much of this comes from the way in which Verhoeven effortlessly sways between subplots in his story, but the bulk of the work seems to be coming from the exquisite performance delivered by Huppert. The veteran actress shines like a burning star here, often winning over every scene with the delivery of a simple line of dialogue or an even simpler expression. There are moments in Elle where the actress speaks volumes with a casual smirk, the look on her face seemingly sliding in from out of nowhere and catching you completely off guard. It’s a magnificent performance, possibly the best performance, male or female, seen in years.
We can only be thankful that the film in which that performance shines is just as powerful and every bit as engaging. With Elle, Paul Verhoeven not only proves the master filmmaker still has the chops to deliver something unexpected, he offers up what is likely his best film to date. What’s more the veteran filmmaker has likely given us the best film of the year. Elle is groundbreaking in the way it establishes and fleshes out its central relationships, all of them playing out in the most logical and organic yet surprising of ways. If this is the level in which Verhoeven is going to be working in the latter half of his career, let’s all hope it isn’t another decade before he impresses us once again.
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