Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Huppert's outstanding performance embraces with unswerving delicacy the controversial decisions she faces." | Photo: © 2015 Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions

Howling winds, another nod to Dial M For Murder scissors, a fantasy flashback - Paul Verhoeven has fun with making Philippe Djian's novel his own for his very first French film, which is a highlight of this year's New York Film Festival.

The images from the start seem to say - this is a movie, enjoy the thrill! Forget about realism or a diagnosis of the world we live in. Precisely because of this, a truth reveals itself to us. The first image we see is that of a cat while we hear sounds of a violent rape.

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Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is assaulted by a man in a black body stocking and ski mask in her home. After he runs off, she does not call the police. The foam in the bathtub turns blood red in the shape of a heart. Michèle goes out and buys herself some pepper spray and a little axe and continues with her life. Which is complicated as it is.

Although her character in Elle could almost swap clothes with the one Huppert plays in Mia Hansen-Løve's Things To Come (L'Avenir), there is no mistaking one for the other. The star masters two vastly different approaches to storytelling. The deeply felt portrait of a woman in crisis on the one hand, and a mysterious, nonetheless perfectly plausible thriller heroine on the other.

Verhoeven moves smoothly from one curious interaction to the next. Huppert's outstanding performance embraces with unswerving delicacy the controversial decisions she faces. Step by step we meet her friends, family, neighbours and the employees at the video game production company she owns.

There is her mother, Irène (Judith Magre channelling some of the spoiled air she perfected already 60 years ago in Louis Malle's Les Amants), whose escort/boyfriend Ralf (Raphaël Lenglet), a most obvious sleaze ball, manipulates his way up to fiancé. Michèle's father, in prison, is the protagonist of a bloody "urban folktale" that is revealed to us in well-timed chunks.

Michèle's ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) enjoys his self-pity and tries to keep his pretty new yoga instructor girlfriend Hélène (Vimala Pons) to himself. Their son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) doesn't mind being publicly, violently humiliated by his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz).

Robert, husband to Michèle's best friend and colleague Anna (the wonderful Anne Consigny) has no qualms about a little cheating and neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte of the Comédie Française), a banker, has more on his mind than putting up the life-size nativity scene in the garden for his devoutly Catholic wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira).

Overall, the men of Elle show very few signs of integrity, but aren't more than predictably insincere. This is not a study of victimhood, nor a manual for overcoming trauma, nor a user-friendly revenge fantasy. As all good fairy-tale heroes do, instead of sitting around and explaining, Michèle acts.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2016
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Elle packshot
A successful video game boss aims to track down her attacker after a home invasion.
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Director: Paul Verhoeven

Writer: David Birke, based on the book by Philippe Djian

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

Year: 2016

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: France, Germany, Belgium

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