Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is assaulted and raped in her very own home in broad daylight. She cleans up the shards of glass and debris left from the struggle after her attacker flees, then takes a bath and moves on with her life as if nothing happened. She doesn’t even tell her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who visits her that night asking for money for his new apartment’s rent. It is only days later during dinner with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and her husband Robert (Christian Berkel), does she offhandedly mention the incident. They all think that it should be reported to the authorities, but she is reluctant. Instead, she exploits all available means to find out who her rapist is sans police assistance. Her eventual discovery of his identity marks the beginning of a twisted and risky relationship rife with revenge motives, a plot probably as dangerous as the premise of the video game she is spearheading in her IT company. Will she emerge victorious or is this Game Over for her?
“Gripping” is such an understatement. Elle manages to get you hooked all throughout its 130-minute run, and a big part of that is thanks to its lead actress Isabelle Huppert. Rumor has it that the director originally intended to cast a big Hollywood name to headline this movie, but no one dared to touch the material. Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise because Huppert’s bravura performance is something you don’t see every day. Her well-nuanced take on Michèle’s aloof demeanor carries the film and keeps you intrigued enough in spite of the rather long runtime. As one aspect of her personality unravels, more questions pop in your head, and you want answers.
There is this one scene during her Christmas party where she preys on married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) by narrating the sad tale of her childhood, hinting on what that unfortunate event in her life might have contributed to her present persona. It starts of as a desperate appeal in the form of a sob story but it is quickly revealed to be a stern warning not just from one character to another, but also for the audience. It is here that you realize how complex she really is, and your perception of her evolves from pity and sympathy to some kind of ambiguous fear.
The message is subtle but clear. This woman refuses to play the victim and her conviction convinces you that in the end she will have the last laugh. But how? It is that mix of curiosity and concern that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The trailer makes it appear as though the film will focus on the rape issue and nothing else, but the title says it all. This narrative is all about HER, and the plot straddles that theme as well as Michèle’s story as a whole, ending up with a cohesive plot that delivers. If you’re not a fan of Huppert, you’ll surely be after you’re done with this movie.
The score and the sound effects add more to the thrill, especially when it comes to the rape scenes. Yes, “sceneS”. The gratuitous display of violence in those sequences makes this film difficult to watch, yet they are the ones that turn everything into a legit suspense thriller, making them totally necessary. If you are not used to watching that kind of disturbing acts, then pay attention to the opening salvo as it sets the tempo that the film will eventually follow. Decide if you want to see it through all the way to the end. You probably will, out of curiosity.
The movie is not without humor, though. Dark humor. You can tell from Michèle’s reaction that she has been through a lot in life, and that even something as degrading as rape won’t suffice to put her down. It is this detachment from the gravity of the situation she’s in which sometimes evokes some light giggles. Add the sarcasm of her retorts when talking to people around her and you get a character that will be truly hard to forget. Maybe that is the reason why the Oscars remembered. Huppert’s considerable share of acting nominations and wins this season is nothing short of well-deserved.
In the end, Elle is a unique take on the narrative of rape, one where the victim is portrayed as an empowered woman capable of being both predator and prey. It is that uniqueness which captivates you because it goes against the norm, resulting in one of 2016’s most enchanting thrillers.