Best of 2016: #1. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

elle2-021. Elle. Paul Verhoeven. France/Germany/Belgium.

It’s been nearly a decade since we (the cinema) last heard from Paul Verhoeven, perhaps, up until now, one of the most undervalued grand auteurs of our time. Ten years ago, he marked his departure from Hollywood, where he made a name for himself as the most daring and provocative filmmaker working in the studio system, and returned to his native Netherlands to make his WWII epic, Black Book. Ten years later, he’s made his colossal return with Elle, an adaptation of the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian and his first film produced in France, the only country that could have possibility financed such a crazy, project that by all counts should be a total disaster. But instead, he’s made the most sensational, hilarious, and thought-provoking film of 2016, if not the decade.

elle-02Elle is like nothing I’ve seen before. On paper, its tale of danger in the world of international video game development recalls Olivier Assayas’ 2002 demonlover, but that’s only one strand of its complex tapestry. Toss in the fact that it’s a rape thriller/revenge comedy about the daughter of a serial killer, who manages to juggle a robust sex life and becoming a grandmother while running a profitable company, you realize that Elle is basically nine insane movies at once… and every single one of them is nothing short of sensational. While this should be enough, Verhoeven also manages to get a career-best performance out of the world’s greatest actor, Isabelle Huppert, someone I’m pretty sure has never given a bad performance in the five decades she’s been in the business. It’s also worth noting that Elle was just one of four films released in the United States that Huppert starred in (Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (L’avenir), and Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs), and she’s the best thing about each one of them.

elle2-06Describing all of the crazy things that happen over the course of Elle‘s 130 minutes is a futile exercise as they really have to be experienced… especially since Verhoeven achieves an impossible tone with his latest work. As Michèle, Huppert fills the heels of the classic Verhoeven femme fatale. She’s determined, calculating, intimidating, sexy, self-serving, and duplicitous. Like Showgirls‘ Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), Black Book‘s Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), and Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone), Michèle commands the screen, dwarfs the men around her, and acts on impulse. In Elle, she’s the CEO of a video game company and the daughter of an infamous mass murderer, the stigma of which has never gone away. Considering that Michèle is such an dynamic figure and Huppert is such a masterful performer, Verhoeven never bothers to try to make her traditionally “likable.” You can’t help but take your eyes off her.

elle2-13What truly makes Elle the best film of 2016 though is the density of impossibility that it defies. In the hands of really any other filmmaker or any other actor, Elle would have been outrageously offensive. I don’t know that Verhoeven or Huppert could have pulled the film off without the other. How do you successfully make a film about a woman who is, perhaps, turned on by her own rape and not make it a lurid male fantasy (which coincidentally is what Verhoeven explores in his last Hollywood vehicle, Hollow Man)? Verhoeven’s films have certainly been accused of daunting things before. Gay rights groups vilified him for Basic Instinct, and Showgirls still commonly gets labeled as misogynistic (though only by people who don’t seem to recognize it’s a satire). Neither claim is true, but he’s certainly walked a delicate line of decency. It’s actually reassuring to see the praise and success Elle has received since its premiere at Cannes. Has the world caught up to Verhoeven, or is Elle such a tremendous success that it would be near-impossible to ignore?

elle2-07Riveting and unpredictable at every turn, Elle is a masterpiece, and like all of Verhoeven’s films, it only improves with every viewing. A second go-around in the theatre was an enlightening experience, which allowed me the chance to digest everything Verhoeven was throwing at me and to admire what a truly brilliant filmmaker and entertainer he is… and what a complex, marvelous feat he and Huppert pulled off against all odds.

elle2-12Elle premiered in competition at Cannes in May and was released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics in November. It’s currently making its way across the U.S.

With: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Christian Berkel, Virginie Efira, Lucas Prisor, Arthur Mazet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet

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