French film ‘Elle’ juggles thriller with black comedy


French actress Isabelle Huppert returns to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend in “Elle,” her second recent film. “Things to Come” played at the Center three weeks ago. “Elle” is France’s entry for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but it is not for the faint of heart.

Director Paul Verhoeven is known for blockbuster films like “Robocop,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Total Recall,” where he made a name for himself pushing boundaries. In the case of “Elle,” the boundary is rape. As Michèle Leblanc, Huppert, who has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, plays the CEO of a company that makes video games rampant with cartoon savagery. The film opens with Michèle’s violent rape at home by a masked intruder. After it is over, she cleans up the broken crockery, takes a bath, and goes on with her life. The daughter of a notorious serial killer, she wants nothing to do with the police, so she manages the aftermath of the rape on her own. Michèle is one tough cookie. As a woman surrounded by men — at work, in her social life, and at home — she needs to be. The title of the film (“Elle” translates into English as “She”) spotlights the centrality of her role.

Verhoeven fills “Elle” with plot points. He focuses almost as much on Michèle’s day-to-day activities as the consequences of her rape. It’s as if the rape were just another part of her day. Up for parole, her imprisoned father — and by extension, Michèle — is back in the news. Her mother Irene (Judith Magre) lives with a gigolo and develops health issues. Michèle’s ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), of whom she’s still fond, takes up with a much younger yoga teacher. Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) plays the ever-present neighbor. Michèle’s milquetoast son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) has a pregnant girlfriend who’s abusive, and Michèle is sleeping with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend and colleague Anna (Anne Consigny). The video game company’s latest project involves an orc who rapes his victim with a tentacle, and a bootlegged copy superimposing Michèle’s head on the victim goes viral in the office. The parallel between the actual violence in Michèle’s life and the video games she produces seems clear but remains relatively undeveloped. Lest it seem that these plot elements are spoilers, they represent only the bare bones of a busy narrative.

Interwoven into all the action are sex-filled scenes that verge on high-style pornography. Viewers will either be horrified by Michèle’s sexual depravity or find themselves laughing at its absurdity. Her assaulter sends her threats, and she tries to protect herself and discover who he is. Once she does find out, she develops an outrageous pas de deux with him.

Michèle Leblanc is an unlikable but fascinating character, brought to life by Huppert’s powerful performance, another in a host of strong women she has played over the years. “Elle” dares viewers to observe its heroine’s antics impassively, like Michèle’s cat Marty, who watches her mistress’s rape. Is “Elle” comical, horrifying, or both? Viewers will have to decide for themselves.

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