Elle (2016)

Viewed January 2nd

Isabelle Huppert stars in this complex psychosexual suspense film directed by Paul Verhoeven.

There is a version of Elle--the story of a woman raped by a masked man who must identify the man and seek her revenge--that would be edgy in a safer, more familiar way. The ending imagery, in which two female friends stroll through a graveyard contemplating a future without male intimacy, is in line with this. However, the rest of Elle goes down a different, more psychologically ambitious path, involving the pitch black resolution of a family trauma and an impotent son needing to emerge as a hero. As such it's not "Hitchcockian" as a style template; it's a sincere engagement with the work of Hitchcock, taking some moves from DePalma's book, but refocusing them through Haneke, Eyes Wide Shut, and, of course, Verhoeven's own earlier work.

The act of guessing the identity of the rapist is not terribly difficult or even particularly suspenseful because the movie (oddly, it seems, at the time) loses the urgency of this guessing game in the flow of its scenes. But that's fine because after the reveal, the real gist of things emerges and you sit back and say, "Oh, OK." The suspense at that point comes from seeing how the storytelling (rather than the story) and its provocations will resolve themselves. 

There's this thing happening in other high-level genre movies now (I'm thinking of David Fincher, but, in a more extreme version, in David O. Russell, too), in which--without the viewer really noticing it--the genre morphs into something else and and then performs this operation again a few more times, building out not a story but a world of characters and events and moods, and then only later landing back in its familiar genre trappings to close our view of this new world. The danger is that it can be boring if the world isn't particularly interesting (a danger Elle encounters from time to time to a fault) but the payoff is that the ultimate closing of the world can feel tragic.