Once upon a time, Paul Verhoeven was the hottest director in Hollywood, helming such box office hits as RoboCop and Basic Instinct. But a couple of disappointments (oddly, everyone I know loves Starship Troopers and Showgirls is regarded as a camp classic) is all it takes for studios to turn their back on you these days, so Verhoeven took his talent back overseas (he was born and raised in the Netherlands and didn't start directing American movies until the mid 80s - the underrated Flesh and Blood) where his style of sex, violence, and a good dose of humor seems to work best. This is the case with Elle, a movie that would be dead serious if it was made in Hollywood by anyone else. Thankfully, it's French and helmed by Verhoeven – making it one of the more uniquely entertaining movies you're likely to come across.
French actress and Academy Award nominee Isabelle Huppert ( indeed, one of the best and bravest actors currently working) stars as Michèle, who we see getting raped by a masked man (dressed all in black) in the movie's opening moments. While this horrible event would be the cause of two hours of angst for a character in an American movie, Michèle treats her rape rather clinically, although that doesn't mean she doesn't become focused on both finding ways to protect herself and well as hoping to unmask the perpetrator – who begins a game of taunting her after the events take place.
Michèle works for a videogame company whose specialty is creating violent and sexually exploitive games, so she immediately begins to suspect that one of her employees (maybe a current one, perhaps a former one) is the man who raped her. Others in Michèle's circle of friends and acquaintances are also suspicious. I will confess to pinpointing who the person was as soon as his character is introduced in the movie, although I don't know if it will be that obvious to everyone who watches the film. However, the identity of the person is just the first "surprise" in the movie, as Michèle's response is far from expected and may even turn some viewers (especially females, I suspect) off. I will say that knowing who it is (or having a pretty good idea) didn't take away any of my enjoyment, which is a good indication that the film holds up to multiple viewings and is much more than a "whodunnit."
The movie also has a great excuse why our lead character doesn't take her problems to the police; Michèle's father was responsible for some horrible crimes at which she was present (as a little girl). The crimes were horrendous enough that complete strangers will shout awful things at her, and one woman (early in the movie) actually throws a tray of food on her in a public restaurant. Michèle treats that moment so nonchalantly, that viewers will know it's happened to her many times before.
But for all the seriousness of the subject matter here, the real surprise of Elle (which, incidentally, isn't a nickname for the main character but rather the French word for "she") is what a wicked sense of humor is has. Not in the laugh-out-loud kind of way (although I certainly did so a few times), but in a dry, subversive way. There's a great subplot here involving Michèle's son (Jonas Bloquet) and the rather questionable girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) he's chosen for himself that goes places I don't think a Hollywood movie would dare (wait until you the scene where she gives birth!).
Unfortunately a lot of us avoid foreign movies because you have no desire to sit and read subtitles for two hours – I sometimes feel the same, but I encourage you to give this movie a chance. If you've loved Verhoeven's work here in the States, you'll get that same feeling with Elle. I don't know that it's the director's best movie, but it's definitely a contender.
Vital Disc Stats: (The Blu-ray.)
Elle arrives on Blu-ray in a standard Sony-type blue keepcase (the kind with the flap on the side you need to lift up to open the case) and contains no inserts. The 50GB Blu-ray is front-loaded with trailers for Equity, Julieta, Toni Erdmann, Maggie's Plan, and Our Little Sister. The main menu consists of a still image of actress Isabelle Huppert's character and the cat in the movie (the same image that graces the back of the keepcase's slick), with menu selections horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray is region-free.