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When describing the plot of Elle, one may feel the need to tread lightly. That’s because director Paul Verhoeven’s latest pushes the boundaries of political correctness and – perhaps in some minds – plain good taste. It’s a movie that has every reason not to work, every reason to incite outrage.

But against all odds, Elle turns out to be a subversive powerhouse of a film: risky, bold, and liberating in a way you never could have imagined. This is a film that demands to be seen, preferably more than once.

The film opens on a black screen, with sounds of a struggle. It then cuts to an image of Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) being attacked in her upscale Parisian home by a masked assailant. Then something interesting happens: Michèle gets up, sweeps up the broken glass scattered around the floor, takes a quiet bubble bath, and orders some sushi, taking the time to ask the person on the other line what a “Holiday Roll” is. It’s only a few minutes into the film, and already we feel that uncomfortable bubble building in our chest. Are we allowed to laugh? That feeling will linger for the entire 130-minute runtime of Elle.

The attack is the inciting incident of the film, but Verhoeven is far more interested in Michèle herself. The head of a company that specializes in sexually violent video games, she has her hands full, dealing with her hapless son and ex-husband, male employees who attempt to undermine her authority, and her ongoing affair with her best friend’s husband. But when her rapist starts texting and leaving notes to let her know that he’s watching her, Michèle is thrust into a shocking game of cat and mouse, one that at any minute can spiral out of control.

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Michèle is a whirlwind of contradictions. Her outward appearance would suggest that she’s unfazed by the attack, yet she makes a point to change the locks and purchase weapons for self-defense. She doesn’t report the attack to the police, but when out for a fancy dinner, she stops the pleasant chitchat to matter-of-factly tell everyone at the table about the assault. Right at that moment, the waiter brings a bottle of champagne to the table. “Wait a few minutes before popping it,” one of the friends says. And once again, we can’t resist the need to laugh. Verhoeven is a master at mashing up conflicting tones and making us feel uncomfortable.

In the expert hands of Huppert, Michèle is simultaneously vivid and inscrutable. She has this uncanny ability to keep you on the outside, her expression cold and aloof — and then just like that, an almost imperceptible upturn of her lips or squint of her eyes reveals a little something about what’s going on under the surface; a dose of humor or self-awareness introduced to an otherwise serious moment.

Initially Michèle daydreams about what a bloody revenge against her assailant would look like, before her thoughts evolve from revenge to sexual fantasy. And it’s at that exact moment that Verhoeven proves himself to be one of the most audacious filmmakers working today. Michèle will encounter her attacker again, but to say any more would be a spoiler. It’s something you need to see and experience for yourself.

Elle uses its unconventional storyline to explore bigger themes about male/female power dynamics, consent, and the roles we’re expected to adhere to in society. Verhoeven and Huppert have introduced us to an unlikely feminist icon, wrapped in a twisted, masochistic package.

 

Elle is now playing at MDC’s Tower Theater. For showtimes, click here.