zaterdag 4 juni 2016

Today's Review: Elle

Picking up some speed at last.

Elle - recensie

It's an odd thing, but the press seems to almost unilaterally adore this latest film by Paul Verhoeven, with myself being an exclusion to that fact. Even though I love most of Paul Verhoeven's work - even going so far as to publicly consider the much maligned Showgirls a very fun film - I had a hard time appreciating this film. Even though I admit there's a number of things to appreciate about it.

First thing, it's a superb piece of acting by the lead, the fabulous French actress Isabelle Huppert. She delivers a grand performance as the protagonist, Michele, a powerful director of a videogame company who one day unexpectedly finds herself the victim of a brutal rape by an unknown assailant. She effortlessly navigates the part of rape victim and dominant, matriarchal presence at her job and as head of her family of miscreants. Better yet, the dormant demons of her shady past awake to stir things up even more, which soon makes for an intense psychological game between herself and those around her. Nobody is a match for her, both in terms of character and in terms of acting. Sadly, the rest of the cast is nowhere near as exciting to watch and mostly consists of sleazy personas out to make her life more miserable. It's a shame less effort was put into making Michele's surroundings a bit more interesting, but with such a powerful performance as her own, it's hard to keep up.

Second, Verhoeven basically does what he has always done: not give a damn about cinematic conventions and do as he like without taking what many people would consider 'good taste' into account. His continuation of exploring the underbelly of man proves devoid of adhering to the usual norms of narrative progression. Whoever thinks the rape dictates the rest of Michele's actions is wrong, as she doesn't end up a victim of the act, but rather her environment becomes a victim of herself. There's no tear jerking drama here wherein the violated female must come to terms with the traumatic event, nor is there your typical Hollywood style thriller plot which sees the aggressor hunted down by a revenge driven survivor. Yes, Michele does take matters into her own hands and aims to find her rapist, but this detective story thread suddenly comes to a dead stop as the identity of the culprit is revealed earlier than expected, to unforeseen and rather incredulous results. Wherever you think the story is going, Verhoeven doesn't care about your expectations.

Such stubbornness I generally approve of, since there's enough predictable studio drivel going around already. Nevertheless, despite Verhoeven clearly putting his own stamp on Elle which makes it a rather unique final result, I still found it far from a satisfying movie. It's simply too rebellious for the sake of being rebellious. It's a strange and uncomfortable mix of a thriller, family drama and dark comedy, filled with wholly unsympathetic characters. It echoes Verhoeven's scandalous Dutch film Spetters, which saw the auteur heavily criticized and proved one of the prime reasons for him to switch from Holland to Hollywood (and a good choice that was!). However, that film was torn to shreds by critics, while 35 years later Elle is unanimously embraced. The times apparently have changed, but Verhoeven has not changed with them and continues to be an eternal provocateur. In the current political milieu, such an attitude is apparently rewarded. Just not by me. I appreciate Verhoevens refusal to change his style and stick to his (lack of) principles, but I much lament his cynicism. And though it seems the press doesn't share that perspective, I have a feeling many a regular audience member will agree with me upon seeing the strange shock that is Elle.

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