LFF 2016: Isabelle Huppert gives an astonishing central performance in Paul Verhoeven's dark character study
When we first see successful, middle-aged video games producer Michèle Leblanc, she is engaged in a violent struggle with an intruder who proceeds to rape her. Her character is immediately established when, instead of reporting the assault, she clears up the mess, takes a bath and acts as if nothing has happened. This extreme pragmatism – which borders on aloofness – informs every facet of her life, from her relationship with her ex to her matter-of-fact affair with the husband of her best friend. But, as she attempts to track down her rapist, Michèle's own desires become increasingly ambiguous.
We soon see why Michèle is reluctant to involve the police: a childhood ordeal involving her serial killer father has left her wary of authority. While that is perhaps understandable, much of Michèle's behaviour is far from traditional; she certainly doesn't behave as a woman supposedly should in such circumstances. Yet, thanks to Isabelle Huppert's masterful inhabiting of a truly complex character, and a smart script by David Birke (adapting the novel by Philippe Djian) that balances shocking moments with the blackest of comedy, her behaviour never rings anything less than true.
Indeed, while the film proves a challenging watch it ultimately works because it recognises, and fully embraces, the fact that there is not one stock response to such an assault. It's undoubtedly Huppert's multi-layered performance that sees Elle play like a complex psychological drama, rather than an exploitative rape saga – although it will likely, and does perhaps wilfully, inspire debate on that front. Michèle may be shaped by the experiences of her past but she is no victim and her unique strength, along with accompanying destructive streak, gives the narrative its undeniable, lingering power.
Screening on Sat 8 and Tue 11 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 24 Feb.