TIFF: Isabelle Huppert is "Elle"
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 at 4:00PM
NATHANIEL R in Best Actress, Elle, Isabelle Huppert, Paul Verhoeven, Reviews, film festivals, sex scenes, video games

Nathaniel R reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept 8th-18th)

On any given day around the movie internet you will see the headine "What You Need To Know About ['Movie You Haven't Seen Yet']". It's clickbait. The sum total of what you need to know about a movie before you see it is nothing. Go to the movie theater and actually experience it. So if the promise of a new acclaimed Paul Verhoeven feature (his first since the riveting Black Book in 2006) that's been loudly labelled a "rape comedy" starring the world's most casually transgressive movie star Isabelle Huppert is enough to sell you a ticket I urge you to not read any reviews before seeing it, including this one. It's not that the film has twists that can spoil the experience if they're known ahead of time so much as it's in the way the movie is itself twisted.

Just how twisted is revealed through the careful deployment of its psychosexual landmines. And just how often they're successfully played for laughter ... albeit of the discomforting 'what am I laughing at?' variety. 

Two provocative legends (Verhoeven & Huppert) on set

Which is not to say that the rape itself is the subject of comedy...

The intermittent flashbacks play like realistic PTSD feedback loops of snippets of the terrifying attack, that you dread watching whenever they pop up (as well you should.) The comedy instead comes from Isabelle Huppert's master class acting as Michèle Leblanc, the wealthy owner of a video game company. The laughts often emerge from her matter-of-fact sexuality and frankness as with her casual sharing of her rape at a dinner with friends mere hours afterwards or her frequently vocalized curiousity about the rapist himself. Michèle is no stranger to misogyny or sexual perversion, some of it her own. You'll have to see the movie to understand how often she is complicit in unforgiving views of women but its evident from the product she sells to her familial dramas, with her mother and son both of whom regularly experience her angry disapproval. Not everything in the movie works including I'd argue the subplot with her son and how it treads a little too much of the same water in its 130 minute running time. But it's most definitely funny.

Michele is curiously comic even with her cat who she rebukes for not helping her.

You could have at least scratched him.

One of the most fascinating elements of Verhoeven's terrific and hard-to-describe movie is how perfectly he harnesses all the facets of Huppert's screen persona: her chilly cerebral quality, her facility with conveying enigmatic interiority, that underutilized deadpan sense of humor, and her potent carnality. That the project wasn't written explicity for her is as impossible to imagine as the list of names that Verhoeven considered before offering it to her (Kidman, Lane, Stone, Van Houten, etcetera).

A proclamation: this role was Huppert's destiny. You see, long before Michèle Leblanc was the controversial even hated designer of questionable videogames, she was already infamous. As a child a disturbing photo of her was published in the newspaper in an article about a horrific crime. Verhoeven wisely shows us the photo. It won't surprise you to hear that even as a young girl, Isabelle Huppert's face was already an opaque mask, an intimidating challenge, and the herald of the multiple outrageous women she'd one day immortalize on screen.

Grade: A-/B+
Oscar Chances: Yes. People say I'm crazy but yes. If career retrospective feelings take root with Huppert, we could see her among the Best Actress nominees. It's the perfect marriage of a legendary actor to a highly discussable role fused to all of her specific strengths. If you want to reward someone for an entire career, those are the best roles with which to do it -- a role that reminds you of that whole career while offering up fresh energy and excitement of its own. (In a better world the screenplay and Verhoeven might be in the mix but let's at least try for Huppert, shall we?)

Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (http://thefilmexperience.net/).
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