From birth, we are ascribed primary, immutable roles in relation to our family: son or daughter, brother or sister. Not much later, we begin to develop secondary roles: friends, lovers, even enemies. But all the roles we play are firmly grounded in the real world, attached to equal expectations and consequences. One cannot have friends without being friendly, cannot experience love without being loving, and hopes not to have enemies if it can be avoided. When all the rules of the real world are suspended, what do you have? Something not unlike a video game: a tool that allows the role player to indulge in the deepest, darkest realms of perversity and obsession. Or, alternatively, a willful suspension of societal convention(s) in favor of true, tangible danger and real decadence.
Paul Verhoeven's ELLE (2016), his latest since TRICKED (2012), is a rape-revenge / home invasion movie that abides in real decadence. The film begins with the unlawful entry and sexual assault that defines its two-hour runtime. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is the CEO and Co-Founder of a hugely successful video game company. Her daily life and working world is one of mediated violence and gore. The rape brings her virtual and physical worlds uncomfortably close together. It lingers and refuses to go away, until lewd text messages confirm that the mystery perpetrator is still playing. The *game* of the movie, if there is one, is akin to that scenario so common in thrillers, mysteries, and crime yarns: who is responsible? Is it a complete stranger or someone who knows her intimately? Subtly, expertly Verhoeven presents multiple seemingly palatable suspects, but the culprit is rarely anyone you would naturally expect. In that regard, there is a kind of convention to its first twist. But - as with the best from Verhoeven - the real target is found deep in territory so profoundly unsettling that its effect resonates long after.
The film accomplishes something horrible in its unadulterated realness: it presents a defensible psychopathology of why some of us make monsters of ourselves. When real life ceases to function, the game takes over. We make monsters of ourselves to avoid the pain of being alive. The characters in ELLE demonstrate that it takes one to know one. And it asks its audience to consider whether to permit monstrous behavior on a microcosmic scale is permissible if the alternative is sickness run macrocosmically amuck. Who among us can judge such a thing? In turn, the film invites its audience to consider whether a criminal (or one who is perceived as a criminal) can be a victim. Is this even possible? This film - as with other thrillers - confirms that those who initially seem innocent are proven guilty, but who has remorse for those who only seem guilty? ELLE is a delicious reversal of expectations.
I saw this film twice - once in a press screening and once on the USC campus - and intend to see it (at least) a third time once it has officially opened in Los Angeles. And I urge you to see it at least once. It is a startlingly masterful film and marks the welcome (and, frankly, overdue) return of that rascally Dutchman Paul Verhoeven.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon