Paul Verhoeven — creator of a number of some of the best guilty pleasures the 1980’s had to offer, such as “Robocop,” “Starship Troopers” and “Total Recall” — doesn’t seem like the type of director to create a French film and an Oscar-pick with many controversial themes.
“I got a lot of scripts sent to me of books, but nothing I wanted to do. It was repetitive, or sci-fi I’d done before. I was looking for something different that I had not done. An adventure that I was not sure if I could do,” said Verhoeven in an interview when asked how he came to directing this property. “It’s important as an artist to do things that you don’t know, to jump into the unknown. It’s true, you have to challenge yourself.”
Verhoeven has certainly found subject matter different from anything he’s done in the past indeed. Released as part of Celebration! Cinema’s February Indie Picks at the Woodland Theater, “Elle” (which means ‘she’ in french) is a foreign film that’s based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian.
“Elle” tells the complicated story of a woman named Michéle (Isabelle Huppert) and her somewhat troubled life. After being assaulted in her own home in the film’s opening scenes, Michéle makes the choice she will personally track down the attacker instead of calling the police.
Michéle’s decision to take matters into her own hands comes, in part, from how she was raised from her father — who is now in prison after forcing Michéle to witness a traumatic event when she was ten years old.
However, finding the perpetrator is only a minor concern of Michéle. She’s busy caught up at work managing a video game design company, constantly attempting to reconnect with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) and trying to convince her son Vincent (Jonah Bloquet) that he’s making a terrible mistake by dating his monster of a girlfriend.
“Elle” is a film that is divisive in content and certainly isn’t for everyone. There are several scenes that can become rather uncomfortable, and the longer it goes on the more bizarre it seems to become. However, it’s all done with specific reason as “Elle” is much more a character study of Michéle than it is a thriller.
Verhoeven goes to great lengths not to over-explain some of the more bizarre elements in the film, rather leaving it opened ended for the audience to draw their own conclusions. “I felt it was more interesting to give the audience information about what happened to her, and to see the road she takes mostly in the third act, and not say what one has to with the other. It’s up to the audience to make that connection, so it didn’t felt like a cliché, not banal. It’s more interesting when it’s not so ‘A follows B.”
Isabelle Huppert gives a standout performance that has earned her an Oscar-nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. While Emma Stone will likely win for “La La Land,” it does not diminish Huppert’s work, since she is the reason that this character works.
“Elle” is a complicated film that requires multiple viewings in order to fully understand. While it will turn some viewers away because of the subject matter, and others away because of the subtitles, it’s easily some of the most mature work that Verhoeven has ever done.