Elle

 

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Isabelle Huppert triumphs again in a thriller that is masterly until its later stages.

 
Elle

 

The veteran director Paul Verhoeven born in 1938 has been associated for the most part with Hollywood for so many years that for some it will come as a surprise to find that his latest feature is a French language thriller, one which starts with a rape and builds towards an unexpected denouement that is both sexual and provocative. Those who recall Verhoeven's early features such as The Fourth Man (1983) will be less taken aback and will simply delight in the fact that, despite his age, this is a film that moves superbly sustaining its considerable running length of 131 minutes with ease. Not only is Elle made with assurance but its classy Parisian settings are such that one thinks of a more traditional portrayal of a woman under pressure, David Miller's Midnight Lace (1960) produced by Ross Hunter.

 

But, despite Verhoeven's contribution at the helm and a very able supporting cast, the spotlight is quite understandably on the star of Elle, Isabelle Huppert. This highly accomplished and often adventurous actress has never been short of admirers from The Lacemaker (1977) onwards, but her trio of recent stand-out performances (in Valley of Love, Things to Come and her Oscar-nominated role here) are some kind of a peak.

 

In Elle she plays Michèle, a businesswoman who is attacked and raped in her home by a masked stranger but her response is to remain calm, to set on foot some enquiries of her own and not to bring in the police (the latter decision being related to a disturbing involvement with them when she was a child). Once she starts getting messages from her attacker, the film is not without echoes of Haneke's Hidden (Caché) (2005), but Elle is a much more mainstream work than that. Despite the violence of the rape scene, the drama seems set to play out in a slightly tongue in cheek mode as hinted at by the music. The threat is felt in a setting in which the composer of choice is often Mozart and a scene of domestic tension ironically features in the background the Rachmaninov music associated with the 1945 romantic classic Brief Encounter. But this tone is never taken so far as to interfere with the suspense inherent in the tale. A whole range of other characters - men who work for her, her ex-husband, her problematic son, a married neighbour, a lover who is the husband of her best friend - fill out Michèle's world and in doing so provide a gallery from which we can guess at the identity of the violator.

 

If ultimately Elle as a whole is less satisfying than had seemed likely, it is down to two factors. One is a sub-plot about the son (Jonas Bloquet) which is unpersuasive and the other, more crucial to my mind, is the turn taken by the film which creates a problem of tone. The film loses the lighter touch that had seemed to characterise it to enter into a more serious sexual theme albeit while still working within the confines of popular fiction (this thriller derives from a novel by Philippe Djian). These elements undermine the sense of an entertainment that is utterly sure of itself, but nothing can undermine the confidence of Huppert's performance. It should also be said that after veering somewhat off track the film regains its glory (and its earlier tone too) with a cracker of a last line.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet, Lucas Prisor, Arthur Mazet.

 

Dir Paul Verhoeven, Pro Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt, Screenplay David Birke, based on the novel Oh... by Philippe Djian, Ph Stéphane Fontaine, Art Dir Laurent Ott, Ed Job ter Burg, Music Anne Dudley, Costumes Nathalie Raoul.

 

SBS Productions/Pallas Film/France 2 Cinéma/Canal +/France Télévisions/Orange Cinéma Séries/Entre Chien et Loup/Proximus/Filmförderungsanstalt-Picturehouse Entertainment.
131 mins. France/Germany/Belgium. 2015. Rel: 10 March 2017. Cert. 18.