When Michèle (Huppert) is sexually assaulted in her own home by a masked assailant, her reaction seems to be one of extreme compartmentalisation. Carrying on with her daily life as the CEO of a videogames company, those around her are completely unaware of what has happened. When she finally tells a friend about the attack, she does so in a way that seems almost casual.
As Paul Verhoeven’s revenge thriller-come-character study unfolds, the psychological workings of Michèle’s mind slowly become clearer. Her decision not to go to the police seems to be underpinned by the harassment she suffered at the hands of the media as a child, an experience that followed a shocking mass murder committed by her father. A scandal that unjustly portrayed her as both victim and (on some level) perpetrator, she remains a figure of gossip and resentment in her community, even several years later.
Other factors in Michèle’s life include an affair with her friend’s husband, a flirtation with a married neighbour, colleagues that resent her, and her son’s abusive relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. When it becomes clear that her attacker is now stalking her, she prepares to protect herself by looking into self-defence and shopping for guns. Beginning to suspect many of the men around her as her assailant, she refuses to let the situation control her. Instead, she controls the situation.
Adapted from THE 2012 novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, Elle gained huge critical acclaim on release and earned Huppert an Oscar nomination for her towering performance. Part psychological drama, part thriller, part black comedy, the film slowly emerges as a portrait of a character asserting her own unique agency on the cycles of violence, power, and patriarchy through which she is living. The result is a fascinating character study, which in the difficult questions it poses emerges as one of Verhoeven’s most challenging films.
This film is screening at Tyneside Cinema as FLESH + BLOOD: THE CINEMA OF PAUL VERHOEVEN which you can learn more about here!