Review: Elle (2016); d. Paul Verhoeven


Oh, Elle. Where have you been all my life? I’ve seen it twice (so far). It’s a rape-revenge thriller and it’s also … a comedy? As in … really really funny. Many people will despise it for that reason. Or be outraged (if the Tweets of people coming out of the screenings at NYFF are any indication). I disagree strongly with many of the outraged critiques I’ve seen thus far.

And Isabelle Huppert! Always a favorite of mine, this performance is one of her very best. Thank you, Paul Verhoeven.

My 4-star review of Elle is now up at

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15 Responses to Review: Elle (2016); d. Paul Verhoeven

  1. Stevie says:

    Wow, can’t wait to see it! I loved your review. I have to say I’m a Paul Verhoven fan. He sure knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to keep the pace cranking. These are not small skills!

    • sheila says:

      Hello, my friend. I already miss you! So thank you for stopping by. xoxo

      I’m a Verhoeven fan too. He’s a master at pace! And tone and mood – it’s a movie that opens with a rape, and yet the movie is legitimately funny – like, laugh out loud funny – these characters, the dialogue, the craziness of this woman’s life – her ridiculous mother, her lazy son, and on and on … and HUPPERT. And yet it’s also this serious exploration of rape and consent and power.

      As you say, you have to be really REALLY good to pull something like this off.

      And it’s not “campy.” I wouldn’t characterize it as such. It’s addressing some really serious shit but it’s doing in a way that is BOUND to rattle many many cages.

      Love you Stevie!!

  2. Mitch Berg says:

    Paul Verhoeven has always vexed me. Bouncing from wonderful to….challenging and everyplace in between.

    I do have to see this.

    • sheila says:

      I actually found I had to grow into him. Movies that were a turn-off when I was younger now seem quite brilliant to me. And I love Robo Cop.

  3. Lyrie says:

    I don’t know if I’m right (and don’t want to know for now), but I’m scared for this cat.

  4. Sheila Great review, Oh, I’m going to go this week because of it!! Did you ever see The Lacemaker?
    I only saw it once a million years ago and it never left me.
    Huppert knocks me out and freaks me out too. I love how you reference her with all those great actresses you named!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – she really is just on another level. She has another one coming out – by director Mia Hansen-Love (whom I love) – I saw it in Hawaii and it’s so good as well! Totally different kind of character – although with that classic Huppert … je ne sais quoi.

      I am VERY curious to hear what you think. There was a lot of mainly-female outrage on Twitter after its screening at NYFF. One woman was like, “Only women should review this movie.” The assumption being that women were all going to have the same reaction to it. (I have noticed that only men Retweeted my review on Twitter. Women critics are staying away from it with a 10-foot pole. So much for their blabber about wanting diverse voices in criticism. What they actually mean is ‘people who agree with me.’ Not sure how THAT works. People talk about the Boys Club. The Girls Club is equally clique-y. I guess I’m the wrong kind of feminist. #sorrynotsorry)

      The movie DEFinitely presents a fucked-up situation – but (in my experience) sex doesn’t always make sense, and isn’t always nice-nice, with everyone being lovely and sensitive about boundaries. This is SEX we’re talking about. “Elle” takes it to some other place – a really crazy place – You watch going, “What are you DOING, Michele???” but to my mind, it all made sense – considering her character and background. (I hesitate to say more – almost impossible to talk Plot here without giving stuff away.)

      It’s not that I don’t think people shouldn’t have their own reactions. But these women – their critiques were predictable and were mis-reads of what happened onscreen. They are conditioned to see women as victims – and these are feminists! – and so they literally could not conceive of a character like this – who was a sexual assault survivor and STILL very risk-prone (understatement) in her desires – so they labeled her a “male fantasy” or whatever. I think that this is a total mis-read. And it’s a shame because this is SUCH a strong female character. Joan Crawford strong!

      Some women were triggered by the first scene – one friend got up and left – and that is totally understandable. It’s brutal.

      I won’t say anymore until you see it. It’s very VERY strong stuff – but also sooooooo funny, and I have no idea how Verhoeven pulled that combination off! Huppert is hilarious!

      I haven’t seen The Lacemaker – I will seek it out!

      • sheila says:

        Wow, The Lacemaker sounds amazing! I love it that Huppert has been around for, what, 40 years now? Still so much to see. La Ceremonie may be my favorite – have you seen that one? She is terrifying. That movie freaked me out so much I was actually afraid to turn off the lights after I watched it. It’s not a horror movie – really just a thriller/suspense movie – about two bored and blank teenage girls who become intimate friends. It makes Heavenly Creatures look benign.

  5. Sheila
    There is no actress like Isabelle Huppert.
    How this movie is not a male point of view on female masochism (or is that even the correct word?) by a male, I don’t know. But it’s because of Huppert’s performance.
    And of course because of this crazy, out there director.
    “Isabelle Huppert does not make even an unconscious bid of our sympathy.”
    “Huppert doesn’t care.”
    I’ll say she doesn’t! And that makes me laugh because she all the way so doesn’t give a shit!
    How some actors can be good villains, but their expression is ugly and you don’t like them much. Then there are actors like Cagney (maybe one of the first anti-heros?) Who can rough up a woman but you still love him.
    Then there’s Huppert. I’m not even sure if I like her too, but I do!
    Her mysterious yet open face that is so closed at once but reveals everything and things we all don’t want to admit.
    I have to see this film again…..

    • sheila says:

      // How this movie is not a male point of view on female masochism (or is that even the correct word?) by a male, I don’t know. But it’s because of Huppert’s performance. //

      I agree. And he left her alone. He’s smart enough to not try to control her or mold her. He spoke at the QA with frank awe about her. Like, he can’t believe it – or her. Ha! Do you remember the scene after the 2nd (?) assault where she gets rid of him and then – immediately after – basically rolls around between the table and chairs, gasping? She flops into a chair, rolls out, and rolls her arms along the table, head flopping? Like a beached whale? That was all her. He had no idea she was going to do that. SHE had no idea she was going to do that. Thank God his cameraman caught it.

      // and that makes me laugh because she all the way so doesn’t give a shit! //

      I know!!

      The comparisons are few and far between. The actresses I mentioned are the only ones I can think of. Maybe Vanessa Redgrave? Can you think of anyone else?

      // Her mysterious yet open face that is so closed at once but reveals everything and things we all don’t want to admit. //

      Such a good observation. Yes: she goes places we never want to go. and she doesn’t make a big show of “Look how brave and dark I am getting.”

      I had a conversation with a critic yesterday who had a big problem with the son bursting in like a deus ex machina. Like: she had to be saved by a man, after all.

      I didn’t see that last scene that way at all – wonder your thoughts?

      I thought that that final sequence was still a part of their sick game together – even her telling him she was going to call the cops and report him. She was trying to wind him up for what would happen when they got home. That attack was what she wanted (Yikes! But she clearly liked it so …) – and her son interrupted what was their “date” – and didn’t exactly save her from being attacked (because she wanted it) but saved her from the entire sick and twisted relationship – which was a relief for her at that point.

      I don’t know – I think it’s deliberately ambiguous. And sick to the very end.

    • sheila says:

      That religious wife across the street! What??

      The masturbation scene made me laugh out loud.

      • sheila says:

        Oh, and I didn’t want to mention it in the review – very difficult to even write about the thing because anything would constitute a spoiler – but we’re free here:

        That Christmas dinner scene was hilarious.

        She actually DID put a toothpick in the girlfriend’s weiner. and of course it was a weiner.

        She bursts out laughing when her mother makes the announcement.

        That wife saying sweetly, “Is it okay if we watch the Mass?”

        The way she deadpan-rattles off the horrible story of her childhood to neighbor. “Child psychopath” with a little “what are you gonna do” shrug of her shoulders.

        Just the VIBE around that dinner table was so insane.

  6. HelenaG says:

    I just had the chance to watch this film a couple of nights ago (late to the party as per usual), and it’s been on my mind ever since.

    I love, love, love this movie! So much to think about and digest, there is no way that I can get to it all. But just a few things that come to mind:

    I love that I had no idea what kind of movie I was watching. As you mentioned, it’s a mash-up of so many genres, and it’s amazing that it works so well. I remember thinking at one point, “OK, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be scared here. I feel like I should be, but the tone is so different from the usual”.

    And in keeping with that, I love how Isabelle Huppert never telegraphs fear. NEVER! And when we learn about her back story, we get a better understanding of why she’s so opaque, but still…how refreshing! To have a film where the female star isn’t quivering with fear, in a thriller about a masked man who breaks into a stranger’s house and commits vicious rape is such a welcome change.

    I love the main character. I love how confident she is, how smart she is, and how she has no problem saying what everyone else is thinking, but are just too polite to do so.

    I was very impressed with the set where all but one of the assaults took place (her home). That house was almost a character unto itself (in another movie that element would have been played up more) but I was really freaked out by the fact that all her doors appear to be made of glass. When her neighbour offered to help close the shutters in anticipation of a storm (metaphor?), and she says something like “I never counted, but there must be 20 windows in this place”, I thought: that’s just great.

    I appreciate how Verhoeven avoids deliberately scaring the audience. The first rape is already in progress when the film starts, and it is horrifying, but we missed the initial shock. The second time, he purposely shows the audience that the rapist is going to make another appearance by a) the appearance of the scissors, and b) the focus on the window behind Huppert as she admires the baby car seat. When he does attack, you figure that she’s going to pull a “Dial M for Murder” and of course she does.

    I loved this scene for many reasons. First of all, she’s now prepared for what’s going to happen. The first time she was completely shocked, but now she knows what to expect. She looks around for weapons (she has fantasized about bludgeoning him to death after all) and after bringing the car seat down on his head, manages to reach the scissors. As an aside, (and this really has nothing to do with anything important) but I find that her neighbour heals remarkably well, considering that a blade went all the way THROUGH his hand. But whatever.

    Her reaction after she gets rid of him is perfect. As you mentioned, she sort of flops around at the table, because a) she just survived a sexual assault and b) she now has to reconcile the fact that the guy she wants to screw, the guy who makes her masturbate when she sees him on the street, is the psycho who has been stalking and assaulting her. Now if that isn’t a mind-fuck, I don’t what is. I love how the shot ends with her clearly thinking, and trying to figure things out. This is a woman who uses logic in every aspect of her life. Logic trumps her emotions and morals and compassion. And this experience is no exception.

    And then we move to something much more interesting: how a woman might react when she is assaulted by someone she knows and trusts. There was a recent court case when a man avoided a sexual assault conviction partially because the victim had sex with him at another time, after the assault. As if, the assault couldn’t have really happened because if it had, why would she have sex with him afterwards? Seriously. I’m sure there are many reasons why a woman would do this, but I can come up with two off the top of my head: 1. to re-establish the relationship that the woman had before. It’s too psychologically difficult to accept that someone you trust has assaulted you. Therefore you try to make things better. Women are socialized to do that, after all. 2. To re-establish one’s own sense of control, either to oneself or to to the perpetrator or to both. To assert one’s own agency after experiencing something so traumatizing.

    To my knowledge, something like this has never been shown in popular culture before, at least not without making the woman look like a masochistic dummy, but this is not at all what happens here. Michele continues to flirt with Patrick, despite what he’s done, and when he leads her downstairs to assault her again, she turns it into a consensual sexual encounter. She wants him and offers herself, but of course he can’t deal with that, so she plays the game. He hurts her again, but not as badly as the first time. She’s figuring it out. The last encounter then becomes her game entirely. She dictates the rules. She basically tells him exactly when to break into her home (I don’t think he even gets his mask on properly) and then smugly starts to play her role. She is sufficiently sexually aroused, so that the penetration may not even be painful (I’m assuming). She has re-established her position of control, just as she has with all her other social relationships.

    And to be clear, she has done absolutely nothing wrong here. He is the one, after all, invading someone’s house and committing assault. She’s just figured out how to deal. Just like with her father, she was completely innocent of any crime, but she was swept up in his wake, when he involved her in the excitement of burning all their possessions. Yet, she paid the price. She was blamed for his crime, for the rest of her life.

    I love how she tells the wife at the end that “I’m not going anywhere”. Moving out, running away, was never an option for her. So again, she had to figure out a way to deal with the psycho next door. He was never going to force her to leave.

    I would like to add some more thoughts about the wife (a very interesting character!) and Catholicism but I will have to do so at another time.

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