I caught what was probably one of the last screenings of this film in Melbourne, from the far left seat in the first row of a tiny movie theatre. Which usually would have been a major source of irritation – I hate sitting too close to the screen at the movies – but all of that went out of the window as soon as it started. With less than half a month left to 2016, I feel pretty safe in saying it was my favourite film and best lead performance I’ve seen all year. While elegantly shot and full of oh-so-tasteful-and-French interiors, it’s very much afilm, provocative and full-blooded.
Elle begins with the most unsettling use of a cat’s face since Jonesy the Ginger Tom watched a crew member die horribly offscreen in Alien. This time, the impassive feline eyes witness the violent rape of its owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), a woman in her 50s who is assaulted in her flat by a masked intruder. It’s not an uncommon scenario in movies, but Michèle’s reaction afterwards gives a good warning that this movie is about to subvert your expectations over and over again. After her attacker leaves, Michèle chucks the dress she was wearing in the trash, takes a bath, and orders food. She doesn’t call the police, for personal reasons revealed slowly over the course of the movie. Instead she changes the locks to her apartment and coolly informs her friends about her rape over a fancy dinner. All in all, Michèle’s intent is to simply compartmentalise and move on, but it seems that the unknown rapist is not done with her yet and his creepy texts make every man in her life a suspect.
This sounds like a setup for a psychological thriller, which Elle is, but at times the mystery of the masked man feels like it takes a backseat to the thrill of simply following a fascinating, singular character played by an actress at the height of her profession without fear or vanity. She is the kind of ballsy, mean, damaged, funny, cutting, complicated, don’t-give-a-f*** character that is almost exclusively a domain of male actors in movies these days. A large chunk of the film is taken up with Michèle’s interactions and relationships with people in her life, and there’s a lot going on in her life for sure. She runs a successful video-game company with her best friend Anna, where she’s disliked by the majority of her younger male employees. There is her amiable but rather useless grown son and his bitchy pregnant girlfriend; an ex-husband who is dating a much younger yoga teacher; an affair with her friend Anna’s husband; Michèle’s mother who mortifies her with her love of Botox, heavy make-up and young men; and a handsome neighbour who she’s having intense erotic fantasies about.
All the while, the memory of the assault and the ongoing stalking loom over the proceedings, and things turn out to be a lot less cut-and-dry than the typical revenge thriller would have it. The movie’s turn of events could be seen as hugely problematic by some, but to my mind it simply acknowledges the fact that human beings are complex, their sexual desires don’t always veer towards wholesome and nice, and they don’t always react in proper, approved ways. It takes a lot of skill to pull off this gleeful, confronting mix of horror and comedy of manners, but this made-in-heaven match of director and lead actress manage it and how.
P.S. Movie cat watch: Michèle’s British Shorthair is gorgeous.