Being a fan of Paul Verhoven and Isabelle Huppert, and knowing the acclaim this film received when it was released, I figured I’d give it a watch. I must say, there’s a lot of layers to peel back with Elle. This film is a psychological thriller, but more than that, I think it’s both a biting feminist commentary on society and a view of a beaten down woman taking her power back. Thanks to a rich script full of layers and an incredible performance by Isabelle Huppert, Elle is a very interesting film to watch unfold.
Huppert is such a powerhouse in everything she does and this film is no exception. She has a task of playing a lead character that is kind of difficult to figure out. Her character is a damaged woman that is still having to deal with her traumatic childhood and on top of that, is surrounded by toxic men who view her really as a piece of meat to be used from time to time.
What I found so interesting about Huppert’s performance is how understated and level headed it is. She’s clearly messed up and has a lot of toxicity in her life, yet she appears strong and unwavering. That kind of performance was crucial to her character because while she is victimized in the film, Elle is not a damsel in distress tale.
This film contains tragic events, but it is no tragedy. The film’s script is designed with unique layers that all center around creating a main female character and showing us a tragic life that she is determined to reclaim. Her traumatic childhood, her rape, her vicious sexual harassments at work, her affair with a man who has zero regard for her wants… all these things are masterfully done in order to show us the ways she’s been made a victim AND to comment on societal patriarchy and toxic masculinity.
One of the layers in this film that I found very interesting is some of the things Huppert’s character does out of her own free will. For example, getting involved with a married man who’s extremely selfish and really only cares about her from the waist down. I think there’s a couple different ways to interpret her reasoning.
One that I lean toward is that because she’s only been around toxic men in her life, that’s what she gravitates towards in a lover. Another possible theory is that she herself is so damaged that she can’t really have a real meaningful relationship so she chooses selfish men who will never want more than sex.
Either way, the affair is a very useful detail in digging deeper into her character. Her bluntness and willingness to just say what she feels no matter how it comes across is another insight into her as a person. I’d imagine that someone who’s been disregarded for her whole life and treated like dirt would be that way naturally. When life has kicked you in the teeth over and over you start to just not give a damn and say what you feel.
The rape of the main character is really the central plot point for which the majority of the film revolves so I want to talk for a bit about how it’s handled and how she ends up getting revenge. The actual rape scene is not exploitative in any way and doesn’t linger on for too long. I thought it did what was needed and was appropriate. Her behavior afterwards fits her character in that she doesn’t really have much of reaction.
As the film moves along she behaves sort of like a predator awaiting its prey. At least that was my interpretation. She doesn’t go to the police because of her history with them and so she’s left to deal with this man herself.
The rapist is eventually revealed and he’s depicted in such a perfect way. It is the way a rapist should be depicted. He has certain lines of dialogue that give us a view into just how unbelievably diabolical, selfish, and evil the nature of rapists are. The only real issue I took with the film was actually how she ends up enacting revenge. I wish it had been more proactive on her part. She set up the pieces and it works out, but I still wanted to see her be the one to give him the ultimate blow.
Another very smart layer that I loved was one of the female characters who represents the internalization of the patriarchy. This woman makes excuses and apologies for toxic men and rapists and her dialogue is truly SHOCKING and TERRIFYING, but I’m glad it was included because it shows that there really are women out there who will make excuses for men like this.
Elle is a masterfully done psychological thriller that’s ultimately a shockingly blunt commentary on societal patriarchy and women’s empowerment. There’s so many layers to peel back and while i think the final showdown should’ve been done a little different, this film is definitely a must watch!
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