Combustible Celluloid
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With: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Arthur Mazet, Raphaël Lenglet, Lucas Prisor
Written by: David Birke, based on a novel by Philippe Djian
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
MPAA Rating: R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 130
Date: 11/18/2016

Elle (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sex, Violence, and Games

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I haven't seen a Paul Verhoeven movie since he made a bid for respectability with his very accomplished war film Black Book, which was released in the U.S. in 2007. But now he's back with Elle, which is the kind of psycho-sexual thriller — a la Basic Instinct — that made him famous. However, he's smart; he's made this one in French, so that, rather than protests in the streets, he will likely get applause and awards.

Elle opens with a brutal rape. An intruder in a black mask breaks in on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert, still stunningly beautiful), and violates her while a cat watches moodily. Michèle responds in various ways. She installs new locks on her doors. She returns to work, where she is — along with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny) — the head of a videogame company, making a new ultra-violent, ultra-sexy game. She continues her affair with Anna's husband Robert (Christian Berkel). She fantasizes about beating her attacker to death. She decides to tell her friends about what happened, nonchalantly, over dinner. They are shocked, but she just wants to eat. She begins fantasizing about her handsome neighbor across the street, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), who is married to a strict, religious woman. Eventually, she has a run-in with Patrick, and he has some ideas about sex that, presumably, his wife doesn't share.

And so it goes. The mystery isn't really very clever, and the 130-minute film spends a little too much time wrapping all the loose ends into a neat little package. But the bulk of Elle is pure Verhoeven, totally messed up, and unafraid to go into dark sexual territory, and to go there in a big way. But, unlike many filmmakers, Verhoeven uses excess and vulgarity to slyly comment upon subtler hypocrisies; in this case, his attacks are leveled at family facades and quiet neighborhoods. In this movie, a huge, lit-up Nativity scene across from Michèle's house at Christmastime is far from a symbol of hope, decency, or normality.

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