“Elle,” last to be shown in competition, isn’t the best or the most accomplished film. It made sense to show it last in the festival for several reasons, however: the storied career of Paul Verhoeven, its director (at 77, Verhoeven is the oldest filmmaker among this year’s competition directors and has two major hits under his belt, “Basic Instinct,” 1992 and “Starship Troopers,” 1997), the cast, made up of A-plus-plus actors (from Laurent Lafitte to Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Efira, Charles Berling and Anne Consigny), the fact that this is a French-made film (this is Verhoeven’s first French-language film), and because of its strong woman character.
In this thriller adapted from French novelist Philippe Djian’s novel by screenwriter David Birke, Verhoeven brushes the portrait of Michèle (Huppert) a CEO who, after being raped several times silently overcomes the event. The rape occurs again, with an interesting twist, as she refashions herself into the subject, rather than object, of a stranger’s violent desire. Dissonance and ambiguities reign supreme here.
“Paul Verhoeven never tries to give explanations, he just raises hypotheses,” Huppert commented during the press conference given this morning in support of the film.
Michèle’s father, a serial killer, lies in wait in jail for his next pardon hearing—he doesn’t have any contact with his estranged daughter. Her mother, near eighty, is dating a muscle-bound millenial that Michèle is outspokenly critical of. Rebecca (Virginie Efira) and Patrick (Lafitte) live across the street from her. He works as a trader and she’s a devout catholic, even joining other Christians on a pilgrimage to meet the Pope (boredom can take many forms).
Over dinner, Michèle pauses to tell her inner circle about the rape, then acts as if nothing’s happened. It’s as if she’s talking about clipping her cat’s claws too close to the nerve, not rape.
After the rape, Michèle starts receiving suggestive text-messages from an unidentified caller. She gets one, two, and then, nothing. It’s odd, you wonder, did mystery-man lose interest, and if so, why? Strangely, the Birke-written screenplay fails to exploit this tension properly, so the thriller veers into more conventional drama, at times.
Verhoeven weaves the Freudian psychology of family (the place of the parents in Michèle’s life, a photography of her when she was 10 which haunts her) with the sexual and emotional ambiguity of the characters. You don’t really know who likes who, Verhoeven reducing human emotion to brusque, animal impulses and complicating them with lying.
“Elle” is a solid thriller with few imperfections, a solid ending to one of the better Cannes programs in years.