"Elle" A Darkly Comic, Shocking Portrait of Rape and its Aftermath

10/19/2016, 5:36 p.m.
US Release November 11, 2016 Special Presentation 52nd Chicago International Film Festival Friday, October 14, 2016 9pm, Saturday, October 15, ...

Director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct) begins his rape revenge fantasy Elle by literally keeping his audience in the dark. We hear the sounds of dishware and furnishings crashing to the floor and the grunts and groans of struggle and rough sex. The action itself is first revealed through the placid gaze of the family housecoat before we see the main character, Michele, played with laser-like brilliance by France's greatest actress Isabelle Huppert, writhing on the floor, attacked by a masked stranger clad in black ninja garb. Her reaction at the conclusion of this brutal act is startling, as she calmly sweeps up the broken dishes, draws her curtains and goes on calmly and purposefully about her life as the CEO of a video gaming company that, coincidentally, specializes in producing especially brutal and graphic games. (One of the subplots involves the production of a particularly violent new game that sends the audience on a wild goose chase as to the identity of her possible assailant, but that is only a temporary diversion). David Birke's script, based on the novel of the same name by Philippe Djian, and photographed with understated elegance by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, is a carefully paced study in the aftermath of rape. Anne Dudley's sparse score is the underpinning for the taut unfolding of this shaded farse. In a complex change of will, reflected in Michele's steely gaze and a complex turn of events, the victim of this heinous act turns the tables, first, by refusing to play the victim, then later becoming her attacker's collaborator and finally, his nemesis. The film is an intricate Rubric's cube of sub-plots, with Michele having an affair with her best friend and colleagues' husband, who is also her business partner. Oh! Did I mention that Michele is also the daughter of an infamous mass murderer, reviled by all of France? Her father is dying yet she refuses to visit him at his bedside at the prison where he is serving a life sentence. I thought not. Those are just some of the twists and turns in this curious mix of violence, humor and human pathos that makes this one of Huppert and Verhoeven's best films ever.

In French with English subtitles.

The Chicago International Film Festival runs through October 27. Visit chicagofilmfestival.com for tickets,