A French-language thriller telling the story of how a middle-aged woman reacts to a violent sexual assault in her own home, doesn't exactly sound like the kind of crowd-pleasing movie anyone will really be rushing to see this cold, bleak January.
But #Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven — a Dutchman whose last proper hit was 1992's Basic Instinct— won two #GoldenGlobes at this weekend's ceremony, meaning a few million Americans will be pretty curious about the merits of this very European movie.
Before we talk any more about Elle, and why it should get an immediate bump to the top of your to-watch list, check out the trailer below:
Elle is adapted from the novel 'Oh...' by Philippe Dijan, and was originally going to be set in America, before Verhoeven came on board to direct and decided that "no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie."
It's Verhoeven's first time directing in French (he's Dutch but spent most of his career in Hollywood working on films from RoboCop to Total Recall), and although a bunch of massive names were considered for the role (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard, and Game of Thrones's Melisandre, the Dutch actress Carice Van Houten), it's hard to imagine many of them truly getting under the skin of Michèle. This character — whose first reaction to being raped at home is not to tell the police, but to tell her friends over dinner and then calmly return to work — is not somebody just anybody could slip under the skin of.
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Instead, it's the French actress Isabelle Huppert who embodies Michèle, diving deep into her psyche with a cool, detached iciness which can make her a difficult character to grow attached to, even considering what's happened to her. In their glowing review, Variety write that Huppert "nails one peppery, passive-aggressive line reading after another, but it’s the magnified physicality of her work that mesmerizes most," as Michèle switches deftly between her investigation into who raped her and her own, complicated sex life.
In the clip above, Michèle goes out of her way to make her neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) uncomfortable by detailing her memories of the night her father, a notorious serial killer, embarked on a killing spree, and then recruited her to help him clean up. It's a brilliant example of the twisted nature of her psyche and the weird pleasure she takes in creating scenarios which feel alien both to the audience and to the people she interacts with in the movie.
Elle is not trying to pass judgment on what is a normal or reasonable response to an act of sexual assault — it's only interested in the response of one woman. It's a film you should see if twisty thrillers with characters you'll probably never come across in real life do it for you, and one you should avoid if you like simple, unambiguous blockbusters which come wrapped in a big Hollywood bow.
This weekend, Paul Verhoeven accepted the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and Isabelle Huppert took the gong for Best Actress in a drama.
But so rarely does a film like this come around, that the real winner here is neither director nor star, but us, the audience. Elle is out now in limited release across the US.
Did the Golden Globes glory make you consider viewing Elle?