That brief line of dialogue defines Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in more ways than one. The plot certainly has very interesting turns along the way, but the convolutions of the personalities are what really make this entertaining and interesting. This is an intense psychological thriller, with the accent on psychological.
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is a strong, domineering woman. She runs a video game company in a no-nonsense style. She brings that into her personal life as well. The first hint we have of her past is when she is in a café and another customer walks by and dumps food in her lap muttering about “you and your father.” Michèle’s mother is keeping a much younger man—something Michèle finds somewhat pathetic. We learn her father is in prison with a parole hearing approaching. But things really heat up when Michèle is attacked and raped in her home. She seems to go on like nothing happened, but she fantasizes about killing the attacker. When she learns who did it a tense and very perverse game begins to unfold.
But this is more than just a revenge film. In fact, we may not even see it as such because we’re never quite sure if that is really what is driving Michèle. Perhaps for all the terror of the attack, she may find it perversely stimulating. Perhaps it provides a balance for the sense of control she manifests in the other aspects of her life. Perhaps, as we learn more about her past, we might wonder if she is emotionally disturbed. Likewise her attacker is also something of an enigma. Between the two of them the tension grows both sexually and emotionally to levels we know can only lead to disaster.
The film is essentially about obsessions. Certainly sexual and violent fantasies often play out together (compare the video game Michèle’s company is working on). Such obsessions are central to the developments between Michèle and her attacker. For Michèle’s mother it is an obsession with youth. Michèle’s history tells of strange issues her father dealt with that had lasting effects on her and of people’s perception of her. Obsessions such as these take control of lives. So all the emotional protection that Michèle has built around herself comes falling down when the attack brings chaos into her life. That struggle between chaos and control creates a dangerous atmosphere that threatens to undo her and twist her life even more than it has been.
Yes, It is all very twisted (especially all the characters). Delightfully so.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics