Movie Review: Isabelle Huppert is “Elle”

elle

LIGHT SPOILERS ahead:

Paul Verhoeven’s disarming comedy of horrors opens with the aftermath of a rape. Isabelle Huppert picks herself up from the mess in the floor as if the attack had been inflicted upon somebody else entirely, her bourgeois nonchalance rising intact. She is dissociated from herself to the point of being her own voyeur, transfixed by the riddle of her “empty stare”. She plays with people for the sheer pleasure of taking in their reactions, to test their limits—to see how emotions affect them. She herself is unaffected. Michèle Leblanc is a woman for whom “reality” bears no discernible meaning: when her comatose mother lies dying in the hospital bed, Michèle asks the nurse if it’s possible she might be faking it. (She then plays dead while having sex with her lover, as way of paying homage). She nurtures violent sexual fantasies that involve her own rapist. As the head of a videogame company, she demands that the rape scenes featured in the games be more “orgasmic”. She is only genuinely caught off guard when her sense of virtual reality is threatened. And yet the brilliance of Huppert’s Michèle is that she is entirely free of malice: this may be one of the most innocently amoral characters in recent memory. She is clueless as to how she “ought” to act and react. She lacks the instincts for such things, so she hovers over everything. But there is no grand scheme, no insidious masterplan driving her. She might even be deemed a victim if she had any understanding of what a victim was. Isabelle Huppert gives possibly the best female performance of the decade: a triumph of subversion. A character like this has no right to appear so alive, but Huppert is brutally funny and sexy in the role, as translucent as she is opaque. She avoids turning her into a post-human alien: her Michèle is very much in a searching state. And Verhoeven touches on everything from the death of God to hyperrealism, at times articulating the psychology of sensations that Cronenberg anticipated in “Videodrome”. In all its comic horror, the movie gives birth to a new kind of female character, someone who’s been through all the roles—mother, daughter, leader, provider, victim, perpetrator—and stays a puzzle to herself.

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