‘Elle’ unnerves and intrigues

There have been several moments in film that have disturbed me, but few have left me feeling completely shaken. In all honesty, I can count the latter on one hand.

Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s latest project, gives us generous doses of moments like these. The film is unique in its ability to unsettle, which grows in intensity over its duration. Its effective function hinges almost entirely upon the opening scene, which acts as the narrative’s nexus point.

Viewers are immediately thrown out of their comfort zones as they witness the rape of a woman in her own home — without warning, I should add. The attacker, masked and wearing all black, asserts his dominance over his victim, who is pinned down helplessly to the floor. Blood is shed, clothes are ripped and things are shattered; in sum, nothing is left to the imagination. An uneasy stillness pervades the air as the horror unfolds, punctuated by the sounds of voices moaning and bodies pressing together.

Upon finishing, the assailant wipes himself off and flees the scene. In his wake, the woman remains frozen on the floor—but only momentarily. After a few seconds, she stands up and begins cleaning up the traces left by her attacker. She disposes her ripped, blood-stained clothing, sweeps the debris off the floor and finally unwinds by taking a bubble bath.

It is at this point when one’s discomfort becomes more complicated, since the source of unease has shifted. Initially, this feeling stemmed from witnessing a rape transgressive in both nature and cinematic effect. Now, it lies within the sense of normalcy that characterizes this woman’s actions post-assault. She displays few, if any, signs of trauma, and seems to dismiss the incident as something of little importance.

Confusion inevitably arises, which is exactly the state of mind in which Verhoeven wants viewers. He wants us to be frustrated and confounded, for invoking these qualities is key in activating his film’s power.

This unnamed woman is revealed to be Michèle Leblanc, co-founder of a successful video game company. She is successful, ice-cold, brazen and ruthless. She is reviled and hated widely. However, she is elegance personified. Verhoeven paints a complex portrait of her life, one riddled with contradictions. Within the confines of the director’s frame, actress Isabelle Huppert enlivens her character beautifully. With the help of these two figures, Michèle, an enigma whose actions cannot be predicted and whose mind cannot be entered, is made possible.

In this light, her actions in the opening scene are unsurprising by virtue of their unpredictable nature. Though manifold and exhaustive, these attempts to erase the physical traces of her rape are ultimately ineffective. Her assailant, though physically absent, is very much present in Michèle’s life, for he continues to harass her through text messages whenever the opportunity arises.

A tense cat-and-mouse game is at play here, but over the course of Elle, the identities of both players are up for question. As she seeks out and eventually discovers the identity of her attacker, Michèle shows us that, for her, playing this game is second nature; her life up to this point has consisted of this game in countless iterations. Establishing dominance in the most subtle and unexpected of ways is a skill she has honed through the years, and no one in her life is spared.

This disconnect between what viewers expect and what actually takes place continues throughout the film, reaching a point when the former ceases to exist. Such is the price that one pays, but the reward is perversely sweet: it makes for a viewing experience that is unsettling, darkly humorous and bewildering beyond measure.

By the time the credits roll, one fact is clear: Elle is not for the faint of heart. While similar films get under one’s skin, this film takes it a step further. Once there, it proceeds to rip this skin off slowly but mercilessly, bringing a literal dimension to the phrase “chilling to the bone.” The act of doing so is precisely what makes this film so engrossing. In the process of harnessing rather than avoiding unease, Verhoeven turns it into an unavoidable and addictive sensation. The more he unnerves us, the more we become intrigued by the web he weaves so intricately.

Paul Verhoeven’s latest project, ‘Elle,’ depicts a tense and thrilling cat-and-mouse conflict. Photo courtesy of thewriterintheworld.com