‘Elle’ Cannes Review: Isabelle Huppert Is Spectacular in Mean, Funny Film

Director Paul Verhoeven’s film seems designed to court maximum controversy

elle isabelle huppert
Isabelle Huppert, "Elle" / Sony Pictures Classics

Director Paul Verhoeven hasn’t made a feature length film since 2006’s World War II thriller “Black Book,” and you can tell the Dutch provocateur spent the past decade itching to get back to work. Verhoeven’s bomb-throwing glee is apparent in every frame of “Elle,” his French language debut that seeks to court maximum controversy.

Everything about “Elle” seems designed to spur argument, all the way down to its genre. Is the film a dark comedy or a gritty psychological drama? Is it abhorrently flippant in its treatment of sexual assault, or subversively progressive? Is Verhoeven making fun of American revenge thrillers, or is he setting his satirical sights on the run of the mill “wives and mistresses, never shall they meet” French comedy?

Each viewer will have to come up with his or her own answers, and that’s the goal. But all will be in harmonious agreement on at least two points: The film is riotously funny, and Isabelle Huppert has never been better.

Huppert plays Michèle, a Paris-based tech executive, who, in the first scene of the film, is violently raped in her own living room. The assailant wears a mask, but it’s made clear that he figures among men of her life. Perhaps he’s the ex-husband, with whom she has a history of abuse. Or maybe he’s the surly game designer, spreading pornographic memes of her at the office. Though the film goes through a couple whodunit beats, it doesn’t really dwell on them.

Neither does Michèle, for that matter. Following her assault, she runs herself a bath and emerges into a wholly different film: a social comedy, with an aging mother, a gigolo lover and an oafish son. But the inspired lunacy — including a standout sequence at Christmas dinner – is continually punctured each time the masked intruder visits again. Verhoeven cranks things up a notch further, insinuating that for Michèle, these visits are not wholly unwelcome.

Verhoeven would not to be able to sell his perverse vision without as a committed a lead as Huppert. She carries herself with total assurance, steely-eyed in the boardroom and the bedroom. Always the driver of her own destiny, Huppert’s Michèle cannot see herself as victim. Her will, and her refusal to cede control no matter the situation, gives the subsequent assaults a transgressive edge.

Well, some may call it transgressive; others may use inflammatory or offensive, and they will in great numbers. Based on the rapturous greeting the film received at its Saturday morning press screen, “Elle” seems destined for awards in Cannes and beyond.

When it is released Stateside by Sony Pictures Classics, the film promises to cause quite a stir. Take a good look at Huppert’s mug – it is the face that will launch a thousand think pieces.